A new advancement in nanotechnology may pave the way for erasable or rewriteable optical chips. (Shutterstock)

An advancement in nanotechnology materials might lead to the military maneuvers to erase sensitive data previously only seen in James Bond movies.

Yuebing Zheng, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, said a new development in nanomaterials will enable erasable and rewriteable chips that would allow engineers to erase data remotely by simply flashing a beam of UV light onto the chip.

“The molecules in this material are very sensitive to light, so we can use a UV light or specific light wavelengths to erase or create optical components,” Zheng said in a statement. “Potentially, we could incorporate this LED into the chip and erase its contents wirelessly. We could even time it to disappear after a certain period of time.”

The researchers tested the innovation by using a green laser to develop a waveguide—a structure or tunnel that guides light waves from one point to another—on their nanomaterial. The team then erased the waveguide with a UV light and re-wrote it on the same material using the green laser.

This may be the first time a waveguide has been rewritten, which is a crucial photonic component and a building block for integrated circuits, using an all-optical technique.

The hybrid nanomaterial is akin to an Etch-A-Sketch, where the material relies on light and tiny molecules to draw, delete and re-write optical components.

This advancement will allow engineers and scientists to use light rather than electricity to carry data because they hold potential for making devices faster, smaller and more energy-efficient than components made from silicon.

While optical storage devices like CDs and DVDs require bulky, stand-alone light sources, optical media and light detectors, the chip innovation allows for writing, erasing and rewriting to all happen on two-dimensional nanomaterial, which paves the way for nano-scale optical chips and circuits.

“To develop rewritable integrated nanophotonic circuits, one has to be able to confine light within a 2D plane, where the light can travel in the plane over a long distance and be arbitrarily controlled in terms of its propagation direction, amplitude, frequency and phase,” Zheng said. “Our material, which is a hybrid, makes it possible to develop rewritable integrated nanophotonic circuits.”

An example on how this could be implemented on a military level is if a drone carrying sensitive information is captured by enemy combatants. Military personnel would be able to erase all of the data on the drone remotely if this technology is implemented, without an American version of 007.

The material starts with a plasmonic surface made up of aluminum nanoparticles, with a 280-nanometer polymer layer embedded with molecules that can respond to light.

The molecules, due to quantum mechanics interactions with the light, can either become transparent, allowing the light waves to propagate or they can absorb the light.

The material also can operate two light-transporting modes simultaneously—called the hybrid mode. The material’s dielectric waveguide mode can guide light propagation over a long distance and the plasmonic mode is able to dramatically amplify the light signals within a smaller space.

“The hybrid mode takes the advantages of both dielectric waveguide mode and plasmonic resonance mode, and combines them together while circumventing the limits of each,” Zheng said. “We realized an all-optical control through a technique, called photoswitchable Rabi splitting, which, for the first time, can be achieved in the hybrid plasmon-waveguide mode.”

The integration between these two modes will improve the performances of the optical cavity in the hybrid nanomaterial, which features high-quality factor and low optical loss and maximizes the coupling between the molecules and the hybrid mode.

According to Zheng, there are still challenges that must be addressed before an optical chip or nanophotonic circuit can be designed using this material including optimizing the molecules to improve the stability of the re-writable waveguides and their performance for optical communications.

The study, which appeared in Nano Letters, could be viewed here.