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Painting with light: Novel nanopillars precisely control intensity of transmitted light

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Illustration depicts a faithful reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” using millions of nanopillars that control both the color and intensity of incident light. Credit: T. Xu/Nanjing University By shining white light on a glass slide stippled with millions of tiny titanium dioxide pillars, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and their collaborators have reproduced with astonishing fidelity the luminous hues and subtle shadings of “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece. The approach has potential applications in improving optical communications and making currency harder to counterfeit. For example, by adding or dropping a particular color, or wavelength, of light traveling in an optical fiber, scientists can control the amount of information carried by the fiber. By altering the intensity, researchers can maintain t the brightness of the light signal as it travels long distances in the fiber. The approach might also be used to “paint” paper money with small but intricate color details that a counterfeiter would have great difficulty forging. Other scientists have previously used tiny pillars, or nanopillars, of varying sizes to trap and emit specific colors when illuminated with white light. The width of the nanopillars, which are about 600 nanometers in height, or less than one-hundredth the diameter of a human hair, determines the specific color of light that a pillar traps and emits. For a demanding test of such a technique, researchers examined how well the nanopillars reproduced the colors of a familiar painting, such as the Vermeer. Although several teams of researchers had successfully arranged millions of nanopillars whose sizes were tailored to transmit red, green or blue light to create a specific palette of output colors, the scientists had no way to control the intensity of those colors. The intensity, or brightness, of colors determines an image’s light and shadow—its chiaroscuro —and enhances the ability to convey impressions of perspective and depth, a signature feature of Vermeer’s work. Now, by fabricating nanopillars that not only trap and emit specific colors of light but also change its polarization by varying degrees, the NIST researchers and their collaborators from Nanjing University in China have for the first time demonstrated a way to control both color and intensity. The researchers, who include Amit Agrawal and Wenqi Zhu of NIST and the University of Maryland in College Park, and Henri Lezec of NIST, describe their findings in the September 20 issue of the journal Optica, posted online today. In their new work, the NIST team fabricated on a glass slide nanopillars of titanium dioxide that had an elliptical cross section rather than a circular one. Circular objects have a single uniform diameter, but elliptical objects have a long axis and a short axis. The researchers designed the nanopillars so that at different locations their long axis was more aligned or less aligned with the polarization of the incoming white light. (Polarized light is light whose electric field vibrates in a particular direction as it journeys across
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