Graphene has caused a lot of excitement among scientists since the extremely strong and thin carbon material was discovered in 2004. Just one atom thick, the honeycomb-shaped material has several remarkable properties combining mechanical toughness with superior electrical and thermal conductivity.

Now a group of scientists at Iowa State University and the Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory, led by physicist Jigang Wang, has shown that graphene has two other properties that could have applications in high-speed telecommunications devices and laser technology – population inversion of electrons and broadband optical gain.

Wang's team flashed extremely short laser pulses on graphene. The researchers immediately discovered a new photo-excited graphene state characterized by a broadband population inversion of electrons. Under normal conditions, most electrons would occupy low-energy states and just a few would populate higher-energy states. In population-inverted states, this situation is reversed: more electrons populate higher, rather than lower, energy states. Such population inversions are very rare in nature and can have highly unusual properties. In graphene, the new state produces an optical gain from the infrared to the visible.

Simply stated, optical gain means more visible light comes out than goes in. This can only happen when the gain medium is externally pumped and then stimulated with light (stimulated emission). Wang’s discovery could open doors for efficient amplifiers in the telecommunication industry and extremely fast opto-electronics devices.

"It's very exciting," Wang said. "It opens the possibility of using graphene as a gain medium for light amplification. It could be used in making broadband optical amplifiers or high-speed modulators for telecommunications. It even provides implications for development of graphene-based lasers."

An understanding gap existed, Wang explained, between the two scientific communities that studied the electronic and photonic properties of graphene. He believed his group could help bridge the gap by elaborating the non-linear optical properties of graphene and understanding the non-equilibrium electronic state. Wang explained that linear optical properties only transmit light – one light signal comes into a material and one comes out. "The non-linear property can change and modulate the signal, not just transmit it, producing functionality for novel device applications."

"We were the first group to break new ground, to start looking at it in a highly excited state consisting of extremely dense electrons – a highly non-linear state. In such a state, graphene has unique properties."

The results indicated that the population inverted state in photoexcited graphene emitted more light than it absorbed. "The absorption was negative. It meant that population inversion is indeed established in the excited graphene and more light came out of the inverted medium than what entered, which is optical gain," Wang said. "The light emitted shows gain of about one percent for a layer a mere one atom thick, a figure on the same order to what's seen in conventional semiconductor optical amplifiers hundreds of times thicker."

This story is reprinted from material from Iowa State University, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.