Amulti-university research team has used a new spectroscopic method to gain a key insight into how light is emitted from layered nanomaterials and other thin films. The technique, called energy-momentum spectroscopy, enables researchers to look at the light emerging from a thin film and determine whether it is coming from emitters oriented along the plane of the film or from emitters oriented perpendicular to the film. Knowing the orientations of emitters could help engineers make better use of thin-film materials in optical devices like LEDs or solar cells. The research was a collaborative effort of Brown University, Case Western Reserve University, Columbia University, and the University of California–Santa Barbara.
The new technique takes advantage of a fundamental property of thin films: interference. Interference effects can be seen in the rainbow colors visible on the surface of soap bubbles or oil slicks. Scientists can analyze how light constructively and destructively interferes at different angles to draw conclusions about the film itself — how thick it is, for example. This new technique takes that kind of analysis one step further for light-emitting thin films.
The researchers demonstrated their technique on two important thin-film materials, molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) and PTCDA. Each represents a class of materials that shows promise for optical applications. MoS2 is a two-dimensional material similar to graphene, and PTCDA is an organic semiconductor. The research showed that light emission from MoS2 occurs only from in-plane emitters. In PTCDA, light comes from two distinct species of emitters, one in-plane and one out-of-plane.
Once the orientation of the emitters is known, it may be possible to design structured devices that maximize those directional properties. In most applications, thin-film materials are layered on top of each other. The orientations of emitters in each layer indicate whether electronic excitations are happening within each layer or across layers, and that has implications for how such a device should be configured.
The same concept could apply to light-absorbing devices like solar cells. By understanding how the electronic excitations happen in the material, it could be possible to structure it in a way that coverts more incoming light to electricity.