Images provide information — what we can observe with our own eyes enables us to understand. Constantly expanding the field of perception into dimensions that have been initially hidden from the naked eye, drives science forward. Today, increasingly powerful microscopes let us see into the cells and tissues of living organisms, into the world of microorganisms, as well as into inanimate nature. But even the best microscopes have their limits. “To be able to observe structures and processes down to the nanoscale level and below, we need new methods and technologies,” said Dr. Silvio Fuchs from the Institute of Optics and Quantum Electronics at the University of Jena. This applies in particular to technological areas such as materials research or data processing. Together with colleagues, he has now developed a method that makes it possible to display and study tiny, complex structures and even “see inside” them without destroying them.
The imaging procedure is based on optical coherence tomography (OCT), which has been established in ophthalmology for a number of years, explains doctoral candidate Felix Wiesner, the lead author of the study. “These devices have been developed to examine the retina of the eye noninvasively, layer by layer, to create 3-dimensional images.” The ophthalmologist’s OCT uses infrared light to illuminate the retina. The radiation is selected in such a way that the tissue to be examined does not absorb it too strongly and it can be reflected by the inner structures. However, the physicists in Jena use extremely short-wave UV light instead of long-wave infrared light for their OCT. In order to look into semiconductor materials with structure sizes of only a few nanometers, light with a wavelength of only a few nanometers is needed.
Generating such extremely shortwave UV light (XUV) used to be a challenge and was almost only possible in large-scale research facilities. Jena physicists, however, generate broadband XUV in an ordinary laboratory and use what are called high harmonics for this purpose. This radiation is produced by the interaction of laser light with a medium and has a frequency many times that of the original light. The higher the harmonic order, the shorter the resulting wavelength. They generated light with a wavelength of between 10 and 80 nanometers using infrared lasers. Like the irradiated laser light, the resulting broadband XUV light is also coherent, which means that it has laser-like properties.
In the work described in their current paper, the physicists exposed nanoscopic layer structures in silicon to the coherent XUV radiation and analyzed the reflected light. The silicon samples contained thin layers of other metals, such as titanium or silver, at different depths. Because these materials have different reflective properties from the silicon, they can be detected in the reflected radiation. The method is so precise that not only can the deep structure of the tiny samples be displayed with nanometer accuracy, but — due to the differing reflective behavior — the chemical composition of the samples can also be determined precisely and, above all, in a non-destructive manner. “This makes coherence tomography an interesting application for inspecting semiconductors, solar cells, or multilayer optical components,” said Professor Gerhard Paulus. It could be used for quality control in the manufacturing process of such nanomaterials, to detect internal defects or chemical impurities.