New 3-D photonic crystal has both electronic, optical properties

Using an epitaxial approach, University of Illinois researchers developed a 3-D photonic crystal LED, the first such optoelectronic device. Credit: Erik Nelson

In an advance that could open new avenues for solar cells, lasers, metamaterials and more, researchers at the University of Illinois have demonstrated the first optoelectronically active 3-D photonic crystal.

“We’ve discovered a way to change the three-dimensional structure of a well-established semiconductor material to enable new optical properties while maintaining its very attractive electrical properties,” said Paul Braun, a professor of materials science and engineering and of chemistry who led the research effort.

Photonic crystals are materials that can control or manipulate light in unexpected ways thanks to their unique physical structures. Photonic crystals can induce unusual phenomena and affect photon behavior in ways that traditional optical materials and devices can’t. They are popular materials of study for applications in lasers, solar energy, LEDs, metamaterials and more.

However, previous attempts at making 3-D photonic crystals have resulted in devices that are only optically active that is, they can direct light but not electronically active, so they can’t turn electricity to light or vice versa.

The Illinois team’s photonic crystal has both properties.

“With our approach to fabricating photonic crystals, there’s a lot of potential to optimize electronic and optical properties simultaneously,” said Erik Nelson, a former graduate student in Braun’s lab who now is a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. “It gives you the opportunity to control light in ways that are very unique to control the way it’s emitted and absorbed or how it propagates.”

To create a 3-D photonic crystal that is both electronically and optically active, the researchers started with a template of tiny spheres packed together. Then, they deposit gallium arsenide (GaAs), a widely used semiconductor, through the template, filling in the gaps between the spheres.

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