Technology 4 min read

Gold Nanoparticles + Microlasers = Better Frequency Comb Tech

Georgy Shafeev |

Georgy Shafeev |

Frequency comb tech could be seeing an upgrade, and it’s all thanks to the addition of just a little bit of gold.

Recently, researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering have found a way to improve on frequency comb construction.

The tech has widespread uses, but it is relegated mostly to the lab because it is very hard to scale down.

Thanks to USC, that drawback could be a thing of the past. Researchers were able to get more wavelenghts at a lower power cost by adding gold nanoparticles to the microlaser element within a frequency comb. That’s a pretty big deal for something on the nanoscale.

What does that mean? What even is a frequency comb? Before we get into that, just know that this discovery could change the face of chemical spectrum analysis, GPS systems, and more.

What’s a Frequency Comb, Anyway?

A frequency comb is a type of laser-based device that splits a single color into a wide spectrum of light. It is used in many modern technologies, including chemical detectors, GPS systems, and cyber security.

You need a frequency comb to get a direct link from a radio frequency to an optical one. Of course, this means nothing to most people. However, for those who need to use an atomic clock, or who need to screen frequencies for data (such as astrologists and meteorologists), it is absolutely essential.

So, the technology has widespread uses. That means a lot of educated minds are looking at it from different angles. In typical Industry 4.0 fashion, the researchers have combined their varied expertise and collaborated on improving what was already there.

According to Andrea Armani, the lead researcher on the project, “These results exemplify what can happen if researchers from different fields work together on a basic science problem that has applied research impact.”

“These results exemplify what can happen if researchers from different fields work together on a basic science problem that has applied research impact.”

Optimally, frequency combs should have numerous emission wavelengths over a large wavelength range. At least, that’s according to Vinh Diep, a Materials Science PhD student and co-author of the study.

The technology requires large systems at the moment, so it’s still very much in the research phase. However, adding gold nanoparticles may change things, as it has provided a new standard for frequency combs.

Building the Gold Standard for Frequency Combs

Let’s talk numbers. The researchers got the comb to span over a wavelength range of 300 nanometers by adding gold nanoparticles to the surface of the microlaser. No other comb to date has generated that many wavelengths at the same level of power used in the experiment.

That means that the device has big potential for miniaturizing chemical spectroscopy systems. Just how much smaller we can make spectroscopy systems isn’t yet clear, but the results are exciting nonetheless.

This could be a pretty big step for miniaturization, though. If you can take something that required a room in a facility and shrink it down to the size of a briefcase or backpack, then you’ve advanced the field of chemical analysis in a big way.

And would you believe that plenty of scientists thought that this was all a dumb idea? Many thought that adding gold particles would be problematic for the laser. Score one for USC, I suppose, because they challenged that conventional thought and came out ahead.

Conventional thought: 0, USC: 1. #goldstandard #buildabettercombClick To Tweet

According to Diep, their unconventional method is pretty efficient. “By combining expertise in optics and in nanomaterials, we made exceptionally fast progress that challenged and disproved the conventional thought in the field that gold nanoparticles would be detrimental to the laser.”

I’m interested to see where all of this goes. Portable chemical analysis could be incredibly important for forensics, safety inspections, and much more. For that matter, I’ll be pretty happy if my GPS system is more accurate because of a better frequency comb.

What’s your take? Will this research take frequency combs from the lab to the real world? What kinds of tech advances do you think it will bring us?

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