Princeton researchers have invented an extremely sensitive sensor that opens up new ways to detect a wide range of substances, from tell-tale signs of cancer to hidden explosives.


The sensor, which is the most sensitive of its kind to date, relies on a completely new architecture and fabrication technique developed by the Princeton researchers. The device boosts faint signals generated by the scattering of laser light from a material placed on it, allowing the identification of various substances based on the color of light they reflect. The sample could be as small as a single molecule.

The technology is a major advance in a decades-long search to identify materials using Raman scattering, a phenomena discovered in the 1920s by an Indian physicist, Chandrasekhara Raman, where light reflecting off an object carries a signature of its molecular composition and structure.

“Raman scattering has enormous potential in biological and chemical sensing, and could have many applications in industry, medicine, the military and other fields,” said Stephen Y. Chou, the professor of electrical engineering who led the research team. “But current Raman sensors are so weak that their use has been very limited outside of research. We’ve developed a way to significantly enhance the signal over the entire sensor and that could change the landscape of how Raman scattering can be used.”

In Raman scattering, a beam of pure one-color light is focused on a target, but the reflected light from the object contains two extra colors of light. The frequency of these extra colors are unique to the molecular make-up of the substance, providing a potentially powerful method to determine the identity of the substance, analogous to the way a finger print or DNA signature helps identify a person.

Since Raman first discovered the phenomena — a breakthrough that earned him Nobel Prize — engineers have dreamed of using it in everyday devices to identify the molecular composition and structures of substances, but for many materials the strength of the extra colors of reflected light was too weak to be seen even with the most sophisticated laboratory equipment.

Researchers discovered in the 1970s that the Raman signals were much stronger if the substance to be identified is placed on a rough metal surface or tiny particles of gold or silver. The technique, known as surface enhanced Raman scattering (SERS), showed great promise, but even after four decades of research has proven difficult to put to practical use. The strong signals appeared only at a few random points on the sensor surface, making it difficult to predict where to measure the signal and resulting in a weak overall signal for such a sensor.

One secret of the Chou team’s design is that their pillar arrays are fundamentally different from those explored by other researchers. Their structure has two key components: a cavity formed by metal on the top and at the base of each pillar; and metal particles of about 20 nanometers in diameter, known as plasmonic nanodots, on the pillar wall, with small gaps of about 2 nanometers between the metal components.

The small particles and gaps significantly boost the Raman signal. The cavities serve as antennae, trapping light from the laser so it passes the plasmonic nanodots multiple times to generate the Raman signal rather than only once. The cavities also enhance the outgoing Raman signal.

The Chou’s team named their new sensor “disk-coupled dots-on-pillar antenna-array” or D2PA, for short.

So far, the chip is a billion times (109) more sensitive than was possible without SERS boosting of Raman signals and the sensor is uniformly sensitive, making it more reliable for use in sensing devices. Such sensitivity is several orders of magnitude higher than the previously reported.

Courtesy: sciencedaily.com

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Mahesh(MGIT ECE 3rd yr)

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