A better tool to measure light

An ultra-tiny spectrometer that fits on a microchip.


Miniaturized computational spectrometers are essential for on-chip and implantable applications. Highly sensitive spectral measurement using a single detector allows the footprints of such spectrometers to be scaled down while achieving spectral resolution approaching that of benchtop systems.

Scientists, including a materials researcher from Oregon State University, have created a better tool for measuring light. This advancement in optical spectrometry could enhance anything from smartphone cameras to environmental monitoring. In actuality, scientists came up with a powerful, ultra-tiny spectrometer that fits on a microchip and is operated using artificial intelligence.

To develop this tool, scientists used a comparatively new class of super-thin materials known as two-dimensional semiconductors. The final result is proof of concept for a spectrometer that could be equipped with several technologies.

Due to its complete electrical control over the colors of light it absorbs, the tool has enormous potential for scalability and extensive application.

Ethan Minot, a professor of physics at the OSU College of Science, said, “We’ve demonstrated a way of building spectrometers that are far more miniature than what is typically used today. Spectrometers measure the strength of the light at different wavelengths and are super useful in lots of industries and all fields of science for identifying samples and characterizing materials.”

“Traditional spectrometers require bulky optical and mechanical components, whereas the new device could fit on the end of a human hair. The new research suggests those components can be replaced with novel semiconductor materials and AI, allowing spectrometers to be dramatically scaled down in size from the current smallest ones, which are about the size of a grape.”

Hoon Hahn Yoon, who led the study with Aalto University colleague Zhipei Sun Yoon said, “Our spectrometer does not require assembling separate optical and mechanical components or array designs to disperse and filter light. Moreover, it can achieve a high resolution comparable to benchtop systems but in a much smaller package.”

Minot said, “It’s exciting that our spectrometer opens up possibilities for all sorts of new everyday gadgets and instruments to do new science as well.”

“In medicine, for example, spectrometers are already being tested for their ability to identify subtle changes in human tissue, such as the difference between tumors and healthy tissue. For environmental monitoring, spectrometers can detect what kind of pollution is in the air, water, or ground, and how much there is.”

“It would be nice to have low-cost, portable spectrometers doing this work for us. And in the educational setting, the hands-on teaching of science concepts would be more effective with inexpensive, compact spectrometers.”

“As s work with two-dimensional semiconductors progresses, we’ll rapidly discover new ways to use their novel optical and electronic properties. Research into 2D semiconductors has been in earnest for only a dozen years, starting with the study of graphene, carbon arranged in a honeycomb lattice with a thickness of one atom.”

“It’s really exciting. We’ll continue to have interesting breakthroughs by studying two-dimensional semiconductors.

Journal Reference:

  1. Hoon Hahn Yoon et al. Miniaturized spectrometers with a tunable van der Waals junction. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.add8544
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