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"Spinning" thermal radiation unlocks new machine vision light source

Researchers at Purdue University have discovered a new method for generating spinning thermal radiation in a controlled and efficient manner using artificially structured surfaces known as metasurfaces.

The work, published in Science Advances, could have significance to applications including optical gas sensing and infrared imaging.

Thermal radiation, which originates from random fluctuations in materials, is traditionally considered an incoherent signal. Most conventional thermal emitters show weak to zero circular polarisation in the emitted heat. 

The thermal radiation reaching the earth from many astronomical objects possesses significant circular polarisation.

This intriguing phenomenon leads to the discovery of strong magnetic fields in some condensed stars, offers explanations of puzzles about the early universe, and even provides a possible signature of life.

"Spinning thermal radiation is extremely rare in nature and is only found in some condensed stars," said Dr Zubin Jacob, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University. "Our work provides a new way to generate this type of radiation, which has the potential to be used in a variety of applications, including thermal imaging and communication."

The researchers discovered that by using a metasurface made up of an array of F-shaped structures, they were able to generate predominantly left-handed circularly polarised thermal radiation in all directions, resulting in non-vanishing optical helicity for the first time. 

The team reached 39% of the fundamental limit in optical helicity with their design, and they also showed that the characteristics of emitted thermal photons can be tailored by the symmetries of the metasurface, demonstrating effective control over thermal radiation in its various properties.


The unique spin textures of the engineered thermal emission from the metasurfaces can be exploited as high-contrast infrared beacons in outdoor environments, as the background thermal emission from other natural objects is highly incoherent without any spin textures (Image: Purdue University)

“This research could have important implications for understanding the omnipresent thermal radiation phenomenon and for developing new technologies,” said Jacob. 

Potential applications include using the metasurface as a wide-angle, narrow-band circular-polarised mid-infrared light source for optical gas sensing and infrared imaging. Additionally, the unique spectral, spatial, and spin feature of the engineered thermal emission can be exploited as passive infrared beacons in outdoor environments, making them useful in remote sensing technology.

"We are extremely excited about the potential of this discovery," remarked PhD student Xueji Wang. "Not only does it deepen our understanding of thermal radiation, but it also opens up new possibilities for technological advancements in a variety of fields."


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