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Optical-field-induced current in dielectrics

An Addendum to this article was published on 19 March 2014


The time it takes to switch on and off electric current determines the rate at which signals can be processed and sampled in modern information technology1,2,3,4. Field-effect transistors1,2,3,5,6 are able to control currents at frequencies of the order of or higher than 100 gigahertz, but electric interconnects may hamper progress towards reaching the terahertz (1012 hertz) range. All-optical injection of currents through interfering photoexcitation pathways7,8,9,10 or photoconductive switching of terahertz transients11,12,13,14,15,16 has made it possible to control electric current on a subpicosecond timescale in semiconductors. Insulators have been deemed unsuitable for both methods, because of the need for either ultraviolet light or strong fields, which induce slow damage or ultrafast breakdown17,18,19,20, respectively. Here we report the feasibility of electric signal manipulation in a dielectric. A few-cycle optical waveform reversibly increases—free from breakdown—the a.c. conductivity of amorphous silicon dioxide (fused silica) by more than 18 orders of magnitude within 1 femtosecond, allowing electric currents to be driven, directed and switched by the instantaneous light field. Our work opens the way to extending electronic signal processing and high-speed metrology into the petahertz (1015 hertz) domain.

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Figure 1: Optical-field-induced conductivity and current control in a dielectric.
Figure 2: Carrier-envelope-phase control and intensity dependence of optical-field-generated electric current in SiO2.
Figure 3: Subfemtosecond control of electric current with the electric field of light.


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We thank P. Altpeter and Y. Deng for technical support and discussions, and we thank the Munich-Centre for Advanced Photonics for financial support. A.S. acknowledges the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Swiss National Science Foundation. N.K. acknowledges the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The work of M.I.S. and V.A. was supported by the Chemical Sciences, Biosciences and Geosciences Division (grant no. DEFG02-01ER15213) and by the Materials Sciences and Engineering Division (grant no. DE-FG02-11ER46789) of the Office of the Basic Energy Sciences, Office of Science, US Department of Energy. R.K. acknowledges an ERC Starting Grant.

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A.S., R.K., R.E. and F.K. designed and supervised the experiments. A.S., T.P.-C., D.G., S.M., J.R. and J.V.B. participated in sample design and fabrication. A.S., T.P.-C., N.K., D.G., S.M., M.S. and S.H. performed the measurements. A.S., N.K., V.A., M.K., V.S.Y. and M.I.S. took part in the theoretical modelling. A.S., T.P.-C., N.K., R.K., R.E., V.S.Y. and F.K. analysed and interpreted the experimental data. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Agustin Schiffrin, Mark I. Stockman or Ferenc Krausz.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Schiffrin, A., Paasch-Colberg, T., Karpowicz, N. et al. Optical-field-induced current in dielectrics. Nature 493, 70–74 (2013).

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