The polarization of light can be rotated by almost 6° as it passes through a single sheet of graphene in a magnetic field, according to an international team of physicists. This latest property of graphene – a sheet of carbon just one atom thick – was unexpected because large rotations normally occur only in much thicker materials. The scientists believe that this newly discovered property of graphene could be exploited in new devices that switch light using electric and magnetic fields.
The fact that the polarization of light can rotate as it travels through a material exposed to a magnetic field is, of course, nothing new. Physicists have long known that it is to do with that fact that right- and left-circularly polarized light can propagate at different speeds. It means that when linearly polarized light passes through such a material, the right and left components of the light interfere such that the polarization is rotated by a certain angle when it emerges.
But because the size of this “Faraday angle” is proportional to the thickness of the material, graphene – being just one atomic layer thick – was not expected to generate a large rotation. However, Alexey Kuzmenko and colleagues at the University of Geneva have found that the material can twist the polarization of light by 0.1 radians, or about 6°. Researchers at the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin and the University of Erlangen-Nueremberg – both in Germany – and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in the US were also involved in the work.