Letter | Published:

Explosives detection in a lasing plasmon nanocavity

Nature Nanotechnology volume 9, pages 600604 (2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

Perhaps the most successful application of plasmonics to date has been in sensing, where the interaction of a nanoscale localized field with analytes leads to high-sensitivity detection in real time and in a label-free fashion1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. However, all previous designs have been based on passively excited surface plasmons, in which sensitivity is intrinsically limited by the low quality factors induced by metal losses. It has recently been proposed theoretically that surface plasmon sensors with active excitation (gain-enhanced) can achieve much higher sensitivities due to the amplification of the surface plasmons10,11,12. Here, we experimentally demonstrate an active plasmon sensor that is free of metal losses and operating deep below the diffraction limit for visible light. Loss compensation leads to an intense and sharp lasing emission that is ultrasensitive to adsorbed molecules. We validated the efficacy of our sensor to detect explosives in air under normal conditions and have achieved a sub-part-per-billion detection limit, the lowest reported to date for plasmonic sensors7,13,14,15,16,17,18 with 2,4-dinitrotoluene and ammonium nitrate. The selectivity between 2,4-dinitrotoluene, ammonium nitrate and nitrobenzene is on a par with other state-of-the-art explosives detectors19,20. Our results show that monitoring the change of the lasing intensity is a superior method than monitoring the wavelength shift, as is widely used in passive surface plasmon sensors. We therefore envisage that nanoscopic sensors that make use of plasmonic lasing could become an important tool in security screening and biomolecular diagnostics.

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Acknowledgements

The authors acknowledge financial support from the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR, grant no. FA9550-12-1-0197).

Author information

Author notes

    • Ren-Min Ma
    •  & Sadao Ota

    These authors contributed equally to this work

Affiliations

  1. NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centre, 3112 Etcheverry Hall, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Ren-Min Ma
    • , Sadao Ota
    • , Yimin Li
    • , Sui Yang
    •  & Xiang Zhang
  2. Materials Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 1 Cyclotron Road, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Xiang Zhang

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Contributions

R-M.M. conducted theoretical simulations. R-M.M. and S.O. performed device fabrication and optical measurements. R-M.M. and S.O. wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the manuscript revision. X.Z. guided the research.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Xiang Zhang.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nnano.2014.135

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