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Photonic materials: from fundamentals to applications

The quest for controlling light emission and propagation has a history of more than a century. With the introduction of the term ‘photon’ in 1926 and subsequently the advent of lasers in 1960’s, there has been unprecedented progress in the understanding of light and its propagation, which has been accompanied by several technological breakthroughs. There have been incredible discoveries in the areas of linear and nonlinear optics, quantum optics, ultra-precision measurements, quantum metrology, optical communications, imaging sciences, and even medical physics. At the origin of these great strides is the ability to exercise a reliable control over light and its propagation deterministically in photonic materials.

Over the past three decades, the relentless desire of taming the flow of light propagation and emission at the nano-scale has led to the development of a kind of photonic materials known as “photonic metamaterials” with unparallel applications. These include photonic crystals, plasmonic materials, negative refractive index medium and meta-surfaces. These systems have advantages over conventional photonic materials in terms of their ability to engineer light propagation and emission in such a way to enhance or suppress the emission in any spectral range of interest in both frequency and time domain.

This special issue bring together the concepts, notions and prospects of the physics and possibilities often presented and viewed on separate and different photonic materials in the visible and near-infrared frequency region. The design of different types of photonic materials would be discussed and followed by their ability to manipulate light transport. Being sustained technology-driven field, the device perspective of the structured photonic materials in lasing, communications, and optical sensing are also included.

The configuration of photonic crystals is inspired by the electronic analogue of controlling the flow of electrons in semiconductor crystals. Photonic crystals are constructed with periodically varying dielectric constants on the optical wavelength scale to control the transport of light through it. The most remarkable and exciting aspects of photonic crystals is that deterministic control over the spontaneous emission properties of an emitter embedded inside the photonic crystals. The dispersion relation for the photonic crystals shows the formation of a photonic bandgap with no available states for the frequencies that fall within the gap. This indicates that the density of photon states is modified in a photonic crystal with zero values at the bandgap leading to exceptional control over the spontaneous emission which was once regarded as an immutable property of the emitter.

Photonic structures offer interesting applications in optical sensing, where the reflected or emitted colour of light indicates the information of the environment, such as refractive index, temperature, and pH value. By engineering their frequency response, the photonic structure usually creates a featured resonance peak that shifts its wavelength position with different optical cavity’s condition. For instance, the colour centre in photonics structures has been used for temperature sensing and magnetical field sensing.

Advanced fabrication technologies allow for sub-wavelength fabrication on a large scale, enabling pixel controlling of the light with a phase, polarization, and spectrum modulation. This ability opens up many applications in terms of displays, such as holographic imaging, spatial light modulation devices, and photonics/metasurface lenses. The on-chip devices and their active control of light are one of the current opportunities in this direction.

Light can either interact or be well confined in a single photonic particle, which offers great opportunities for optical sensing and imaging. With the photonics confinement, each of the particles can work as a cavity for lasing and a pixel for imaging. The core-shell and porous structure, together with particles’ surface engineering, enables great powers to control the optical response of single-particle spanning of emission colour, emission lifetime, nonlinear response, and chirality. These features offer exceptional capacity for not only multiplexing imaging but also super-resolution nanoscopy.

This special issue is intended for scientists working in light transport and emission using different types of photonic materials and applications using them for sensing, imaging, and emission control. The novel results reported in this special issue span from optical trapping, medical photonics, photonic crystals and fibers, non-linear optics, 2D materials, and to the emerging quantum technologies. In the following, we briefly summarize the contributions to this special issue and highlight important aspects of the innovation and breakthrough discussed in each manuscript.

Wang et al. [1] introduce a novel mode convertor using graphene on a grating structure that would work for both TE and TM polarization. The idea behind this is the use of dynamical tunability of Fermi energy associated with graphene. They have designed a feasible mode convertor with better modulation characteristics that would enable photonic material-based devices for communication and provide a platform for developing the future micro-nano devices such as unimodal filters and absorption optimization in nanophotonic systems.

Xiao et al. [2] address interesting experimental studies on the electric field and concentration-dependent liquid crystal electro-optical responses of Bi2Te3 dispersions using state-of-the-art experimental setups. The transmittance and phase variations are evoked to identify the electric field-induced birefringence. They have found out even at high values of fields, stable electro-optical characteristics are maintained by the Bi2Te3 dispersions. Such a Bi2Te3 based nano-sheet could be an alternative to graphene oxide-based systems with an order of increase in the electric field-induced birefringence as stated by the authors. Thus the proposed Bi2Te3 nano-sheet-based liquid crystal finds applications in sensing and displays.

By exciting with an infrared light on nanoparticles made of lanthanide-doped materials, visible light is emitted. This remarkable property is used by Kumar et al. [3] to study the upconversion emission from photonic materials like NaYF4:Yb, Er by trapping the particles in an optical tweezer setup. The upconverting nanoparticles are trapped at their absorption maxima of 975 nm and find that hexagonally shaped particles align with its long axis along the tweezer beam. The polarization-dependent experiments in the backscattered direction confirm the rotational Brownian motion of the particle. The proposed methods enlighten fluorescence microscopic characterization of particles with minimal forward scattering and describe ways to measure motional parameters.

We all use touch screen devices in our everyday life from mobile phones to computers at the airport for check-in and to enter keys at the supermarket. The touch screen devices are indispensable in medical diagnostics and defective products containing deep tiny impurities, or even microbubbles generated during device manufacturing are difficult to be probed.

Yang et al. [4] proposed a method to identify such tiny defects and micro-bubbles using a spectral-domain optical coherence tomography system with better imaging depth with a depth of 10 micro-meter and spatial resolution. Such non-destructive imaging entitles details of defects such as the size and spatial location that would enable improved manufacturing with better accuracy.

Su et al. [5] reported an interesting approach to encapsulate ultrasmall nanophosphors into liposomes by thin-film hydration. They found that the ultrasmall nanophosphors were distributed in clusters rather than a single nanoparticle within a liposome. Moreover, the size of liposome-phosphor colloidal system is about 100 nm. The nanophosphors loaded liposomes displayed excellent stability over 30 days and negligible cytotoxicity. They also have excellent optical stability and drug encapsulation efficiencies. The as-prepared liposome-phosphor colloidal nanosystems have potential in cell imaging and drug delivery. Thus, the study provides a novel drug delivery platform with the expected size-tunable ability for bioimaging and chemotherapy.

Jiaying et al. [6] worked on 3D printing of important photonic material—silica, for manufacturing silica optical fibres (SOFs) with new material compositions and structure designs that is very difficult with the existing manufacturing technologies. They studied materials and processes enabling the fabrication of silica optical fibres using digital light processing (DLP) based on 3D printing technology. They demonstrated specific processes including material processing, 3D printing, debinding and sintering that improve efficiency and effectiveness of SOFs fabrication by DLP 3D printing technology. They have also reviewed key technological challenges and discussed possible solutions in future 3D printing of silica optical fibres.

Fei Ai et al. [7] study the use of graphene materials on the end face of a fiber as a saturable absorber to achieve dual-wavelength passive mode-locked Er-doped fiber laser. The excellent properties of graphene such as the flexibility, all-fiber configuration, and high optical damage threshold make it an attractive saturable absorber in high power laser experiments. The proposed dual-wavelength mode-locked fiber laser generates pulses of duration of 7.82 ps at approximately 1557.78 nm and 1558.19 nm wavelengths, respectively. The fundamental pulses occur simultaneously at a low mode-locked threshold of 24.13 mW with closely spaced dual-wavelength regions. This work embarrasses the photonic properties of emerging atomically thin materials and their scope in the laser industry.

The requirement of the nano-scale light source is at the heart of light-emitting devices and nano-scale lasers which calls for the development of such efficient light sources. Tilakraj et al. [8] developed a synthesis route for the ZnS quantum dots with capping using a simple chemical method. The synthesis quantum dots have excellent structural properties and optical stability with an average size of \(\sim 3.5 \,\hbox {nm}\). The dots show strong UV absorption with fluorescence emission at 377 nm. Such quantum dots finds applications in display, and UV lasing.

The main challenges associated with devices operating in the near-infrared wavelength region are the low photon energy and unavoidable thermal noise which need to be circumvented for efficient detection of near-IR photons. In such devices, the material’s temperature coefficient of resistance (TCR) is used benchmark to characterize the device efficiency. Jiang et al. [9] shows an improved material design using silicon-based quantum well materials to overcome the above challenges. The research focuses on the quantum well material’s physical model to determine the link between structural factors and TCR. The results are explained using computational as well as experimental results using the SiGe/Si quantum well material.

The underlying periodicity at the optical wavelength scale is a necessary condition for the origin of photonic band gaps, which arises due to the Bragg diffraction. The presence of disorder fades the appearance of band gaps and thus to be avoided in general. However, deterministic tuning of disorder in photonic structures can induce bad gaps. Sankar et al. [10] shows the presence of bandgaps in quasi-periodic one-dimensional photonic crystals made with dielectric and superconducting materials. The structure exhibit a cut-off frequency that can be used using material parameters. Above the cut-off frequency, the structure is transparent and below the cut-off, the structure induced band gaps in the light propagation.

In ref. [11], Gupta et al. review the recent development in the physical and applications for ferroelectric liquid crystals. The authors summarize that ferroelectric-based liquid crystals can over overcome the well-known nematic liquid crystals in terms of their microseconds response time and low power consumption for photonic applications. This review encompasses the state-of-the-art development in the material aspects of ferroelectric liquid crystals and its adaptability for developing many photonic devices.

The hunt to control light using light and changing the color of light enriched the field of non-linear optics and different types of photonic structures are at the crux of generating the non-linear light-matter interactions. In the review article by Ahmed et al. [12] covers a broad range of non-linear light-matter interactions for various applications in spectroscopy and harmonic generation, studies of charge transfer, and interface state and interactions. The review provides the basics of non-linear polarization, second harmonic generation, sum-frequency generation, time-resolved methods, and pump-probe techniques for much spectroscopic application in organic and photonic materials.

Elie de Lestrange-Anginieur et al. [13] proposed an adaptive optics based approach to investigate modulations of face perception in response to a novel time-varying optical perturbation. They demonstrated that the optical perturbation could affect the perception of the time-averaged aberration. The proposed approach provided an entry point to implement wavefront correction to investigate interpolated blur dynamics.

In Ref. [14], Seyed Ebrahim Hashemi Amiri reported a vapor–liquid–solid growth protocol of highly stoichiometric gallium phosphide nanowires on silicon. By this approach, they achieved restoration of chemical balance, congruent sublimation and maximization of band-edge emission. The proposed protocol holds great importance not only for GaP nanowires on silicon growth, but also will help other III–V compounds growth.

Xiao et al. [15] address interesting experimental studies on the electric field and concentration-dependent liquid crystal electro-optical responses of Bi2Te3 dispersions using state-of-the-art experimental setups. The transmittance and phase variations are evoked to identify the electric field-induced birefringence. They have found that even at high values of fields, stable electro-optical characteristics are maintained by the Bi2Te3 dispersions. Such a Bi2Te3 based nano-sheet could be an alternative to graphene oxide-based systems with an order of increase in the electric field-induced birefringence as started by the authors. Thus the proposed Bi2Te3 nano-sheet-based liquid crystal finds applications in sensing and displays.

The ever-lasting search for photonic materials with exotic optical properties led to the development of two-dimensional atomically thin materials, which is changing the way we see and perceive light-matter interactions. Such atomically thin materials have huge potential in classical and quantum optical technologies. Barmen et al. [16] studied the Fröhlich exciton–phonon interaction in monolayer, bilayer, and spiral tungsten disulfide (WS2) nanostructures using angle-dependent polarized Raman and helicity-resolved Raman measurements. Their experimental results show that Raman modes maintain the helicity of the incident photons, and that indicates, Raman selection rules are seemingly violated due to the strong Fröhlich exciton–phonon interaction.

In Ref. [17], the review focused recent technical advances on volumetric light field neuroimaging. Depeng Wang et al., summarised advanced imaging system for neuronal system by structured illumination and light field detection. Firstly, they summarized light field microscopy in neuroimaging through the illumination way. Then they outlined the historic development of genetically encoded calcium sensors for neuroimaging, and finally discussed light-field neuroimaging of zebrafish.

Zhang et al. [18] summarized recent advances in optical microscopy for label free diagnosis in clinical practice. Histopathology remains the gold standard of surgical margin assessment. However, routine pathological examination based on formalin-fixed and paraffin-embedded tissues is laborious and time-consuming, failing to guide surgeons intraoperatively. Thus rapid and accurate assessment of minimally processed tissues is an appealing medical pursuit. They summarized recent advances in optical microscopy that enable rapid and non-destructive imaging of freshly-excised tissues to provide immediate feedback to surgeons and pathologists for intraoperative decision-making, holding great promise to revolutionize the current clinical practice of surgical pathology.

The photons trapped in sub-wavelength spatial dimensions known as the optical resonator have revolutionized modern optics with applications in cavity switching, nano-lasers, and deterministic photon sources. However, realizing such a sub-wavelength optical resonator is a challenge especially in the visible wavelength region. Kumar et al. [19] designed such an optical resonator using high optical quality micro-discs using soft imprint lithography technique. Through the excitation of whispering gallery mode in these micro-discs, they have achieved a quality factor of \(2.89 \times 10^4\) which results in a lasing with a threshold of 37.5 mJ/cm\(^{2}\).

Raman scattering is a fingerprint of a molecule and hence it can be used as a probing technique to sense the presence of analytes. However, the typical intensities of Raman peaks are feeble and hence there is a need to increase its intensity for better detection sensitivity. Shinki et. al. [20] analyzed methods to increase the intensity of Raman scattered signal using an ally coated metal film over the top of quasi-periodic silicon pyramids. They have found a 50 nm think Au–Ag ally can give a better Raman signal with an enhancement of \(8.6 \times 10^{6}\) using the Raman active probe molecule Rhodamine B dye.

A paradigm shift in the development of photonic materials is envisaged due to the development of quantum technologies. Kala et al. [21] present an interesting study of the fluorescence quenching effect induced by dielectric layers while trapping solid-state single-photon sources like colloidal quantum dots (CQDs). Their results show that sputter-deposited TiO\(_2\) and ALD deposited \(HfO_2\) have the lowest background photon count rates. They have studied a wide variety of dielectric and metal layers and their suitability to combine with CQDs.

The light-matter interactions in materials have moved from nano-scale to atomic layers which shows interesting optical properties of single quantum emitters. However, the emission required tailored for its use in many photonic devices. In Ref. [22], Chaubey et al., studied the directional emission from a monolayer Tungsten Disulfide (\(\hbox {WS}_{2})\) coupled with bent silver nanowires on the gold substrate. The emission is directed towards a narrow range of angles in comparison to an isotropic emission without the nanowires. The results are useful to design on-chip light sources for photonic quantum technologies.

To summarize, this special issue encompasses articles in the frontier areas of light-matter interactions and thereby providing state-of-the-art developments in photonic materials and applications based on it. The special issue covers articles in the area of light-matter interactions in 2D materials and resulting devices, particle trapping using tweezers, fiber materials, medical photonics, and quantum technologies.


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Correspondence to Rajesh V. Nair.

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Nair, R.V., Wang, F., Yang, X. et al. Photonic materials: from fundamentals to applications. Eur. Phys. J. Spec. Top. 231, 583–587 (2022).

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