As big as a grain of sand: First topological vertical cavity laser arrays


Haifa, Israel, and Würzburg, Germany, September 24, 2021: Cell phones, car sensors or data transmission in fiber optic networks are all using so called Vertical-Cavity Surface-Emitting Lasers (VCSELs) – semiconductor lasers that are firmly anchored in our everyday technology. In this context, the VCSEL devices have a miniscule size of only a few microns, which sets a stringent limit on the output power it can generate. For years, scientists have sought to enhance the power emitted by such devices through combining many tiny VCSELs and forcing them to act as a single coherent laser, but had limited success. The current breakthrough uses a different scheme: it employs a unique geometrical arrangement of VCSELs on the chip that forces the flight to flow in a specific path – a photonic topological insulator platform at the size of a grain of sand. The research results were published in the journal Science.


The Israeli team of Prof. Mordechai Segev and the German team of Prof. Sebastian Klembt and Prof. Sven Höfling utilized the concepts of topological photonics with VCSEL microlaserss that emit the light vertically, i.e. through their surface, while the topological process responsible for the mutual coherence and locking of the VCSELs occurs in the plane of the chip. The end result is a powerful but very compact and efficient laser, not limited by a number of VCSEL emitters, and undisturbed by defects or altering temperatures. 


"The topological principle of this laser can generally work for all wavelengths and thus a range of materials," explains German project leader Prof. Sebastian Klembt of the Julius-Maximilians-Universität of Würzburg, working on light-matter interaction and topological photonics within the ct.qmat Cluster of Excellence. "Exactly how many microlasers need to be arranged and connected would always depend entirely on the application. We can expand the size of the laser network to a very large size, and in principle it will remain coherent also for large numbers. It is great to see that topology, originally a branch of mathematics, has emerged as a revolutionary new toolbox for controlling, steering and improving laser properties."


The groundbreaking research has demonstrated that it is in fact theoretically and experimentally possible to combine VCSELs to achieve a single more robust and highly efficient laser. As such, the results of the study pave the way towards applications of numerous future technologies such as medical devices, communications, and a variety of real-world applications.


Topological photonics: a new research field is booming

Several years ago, the Technion group led by Prof. Mordechai Segev has introduced these innovative ideas into photonics, and demonstrated the first Photonic Topological Insulator, where light travels around the edges of a two-dimensional array of waveguides without being affected by defects or disorder. This opened a new field, now known as "Topological Photonics", where hundreds of groups currently have active research.


“It is fascinating to see how science evolves," said Prof. Segev of the Technion. "We went from fundamental physics concepts to foundational changes therein, and now to real technology that is now being pursued by companies. Back in 2015, when we started to work on topological insulator lasers, nobody believed it's possible, because the topological concepts known at that time were limited to systems that do not, in fact cannot, have gain. But all lasers require gain. So topological insulator lasers stood against everything known at that time. We were like a bunch of lunatics searching for something that was considered impossible. And now we have made a large step towards real technology that has many applications."


Circumstances and participants
This German-Israeli research project originated primarily during the Corona pandemic. Without the enormous commitment of the researchers involved, this scientific milestone would not have been possible. The research was conducted by PhD student Alex Dikopoltsev from the team of Distinguished Professor Mordechai Segev at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and PhD student Tristan H. Harder from the team of Prof. Sebastian Klembt and Prof. Sven Höfling at the University of Würzburg, and the Cluster of Excellence ct.qmat, in collaboration with researchers from Jena and Oldenburg.


Cluster of Excellence ct.qmat
The Cluster of Excellence ct.qmat – Complexity and Topology in Quantum Matter is a joint research collaboration by Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg and Technische Universität (TU) Dresden since 2019. The research alliance is closely linked to the research groups of Prof. Alexander Szameit in Rostock, Prof. Moti Segev in Haifa/Israel and the top-level research of five large German non-university institutes. More than 270 scientists from 33 countries and four continents perform research on topological quantum materials that reveal surprising phenomena under extreme conditions such as ultra-low temperatures, high pressures, or strong magnetic fields. The Cluster of Excellence is funded within Excellence Strategy of the German federal and state governments.

Date & Facts

24 Sep 2021


Alex Dikopoltsev, Tristan H. Harder, Eran Lustig, Oleg A. Egorov, Johannes Beierlein, Adriana Wolf, Yaakov Lumer, Monika Emmerling, Christian Schneider, Sven Höfling, Mordechai Segev, Sebastian Klembt, Topological insulator vertical-cavity laser array, Science 373, 1514–1517 (2021) - 24 September 2021.


Illustration of a topological array of vertically emitting lasers. All 30 microlasers along a topological interface (blue) act as one, collectively emitting coherent laser light (red).
© Pixelwg, Christian Kroneck


Prof. Dr. Sebastian Klembt, Chair for Applied Physics, University of Würzburg, Tel: +49 931 31-85980, 

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