Researchers demonstrate efficient electron beam modulation using integrated photonic microresonators

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Photonic integrated circuits can guide light on a chip with ultra-low low losses, and enhance optical fields using micro-ring resonators. (Image: Yujia Yan, EPFL)

Researchers have successfully demonstrated highly efficient electron beam modulation using integrated photonic microresonators.

The work could benefit transmission electron microscopy for application in materials science and structural biology.

Transmission electron microscopes (TEMs) can image molecular structures at the atomic scale by using electrons instead of light.

The past decade has seen a lot of interest in combining electron microscopy with optical excitations, trying, for example, to control and manipulate the electron beam by light. But a major challenge has been the rather weak interaction of propagating electrons with photons.

The new work, published in Nature and carried out by Swiss research institute EPFL, the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, and the University of Göttingen, aims to address this by joining the fields of electron microscopy and integrated photonics.

Photonic integrated circuits can guide light on a chip with ultra-low low losses, and enhance optical fields using micro-ring resonators. 

In an experiment, an electron beam was steered through the optical near field of a photonic integrated circuit, allowing the electrons to interact with the enhanced light. The researchers then probed the interaction by measuring the energy of electrons that had absorbed or emitted tens to hundreds of photon energies. The photonic chips were built in such a way that the speed of light in the micro-ring resonators exactly matched the speed of the electrons, dramatically increasing the electron-photon interaction.

The technique enables a strong modulation of the electron beam, with only a few milli-Watts from a continuous wave laser – a power level generated by a common laser pointer. The approach constitutes a dramatic simplification and efficiency increase in the optical control of electron beams, which can be seamlessly implemented in a regular transmission electron microscope, and could make the scheme much more widely applicable.

'Integrated photonics circuits based on low-loss silicon nitride have made tremendous progress and are intensively driving the progress of many emerging technologies and fundamental science such as lidar, telecommunication, and quantum computing, and now prove to be a new ingredient for electron beam manipulation,' said Professor Tobias Kippenberg of EPFL.

'Interfacing electron microscopy with photonics has the potential to uniquely bridge atomic scale imaging with coherent spectroscopy,' added Professor Claus Ropers of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the University of Göttingen. 'For the future, we expect this to yield an unprecedented understanding and control of microscopic optical excitations.'

The researchers plan to further extend their collaboration in the direction of new forms of quantum optics and attosecond metrology for free electrons.

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