The transmission electron microscope (TEM) can image molecular structures at the atomic scale by using electrons instead of light, and has revolutionized materials science and structural biology. 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.
In a new study, researchers have successfully demonstrated extremely efficient electron beam modulation using integrated photonic microresonators. The study was led by Professor Tobias J. Kippenberg at EPFL and by Professor Claus Ropers at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the University of Göttingen, and is published in Nature.
The two laboratories formed an unconventional collaboration, joining the usually unconnected 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 the experiments conducted by Ropers’ group, an electron beam was steered through the optical near field of a photonic circuit, to allow 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 engineered by Kippenberg’s group, built in such a way that the speed of light in the micro-ring resonators exactly matched the speed of the electrons, drastically increasing the electron-photon interaction.