Summary
Surface plasmon polaritons (SPPs) are electromagnetic waves that travel along a metal–dielectric or metal–air interface, practically in the infrared or visible-frequency. The term "surface plasmon polariton" explains that the wave involves both charge motion in the metal ("surface plasmon") and electromagnetic waves in the air or dielectric ("polariton"). They are a type of surface wave, guided along the interface in much the same way that light can be guided by an optical fiber. SPPs have a shorter wavelength than light in vacuum at the same frequency (photons). Hence, SPPs can have a higher momentum and local field intensity. Perpendicular to the interface, they have subwavelength-scale confinement. An SPP will propagate along the interface until its energy is lost either to absorption in the metal or scattering into other directions (such as into free space). Application of SPPs enables subwavelength optics in microscopy and photolithography beyond the diffraction limit. It also enables the first steady-state micro-mechanical measurement of a fundamental property of light itself: the momentum of a photon in a dielectric medium. Other applications are photonic data storage, light generation, and bio-photonics. SPPs can be excited by both electrons and photons. Excitation by electrons is created by firing electrons into the bulk of a metal. As the electrons scatter, energy is transferred into the bulk plasma. The component of the scattering vector parallel to the surface results in the formation of a surface plasmon polariton. For a photon to excite an SPP, both must have the same frequency and momentum. However, for a given frequency, a free-space photon has less momentum than an SPP because the two have different dispersion relations (see below). This momentum mismatch is the reason that a free-space photon from air cannot couple directly to an SPP. For the same reason, an SPP on a smooth metal surface cannot emit energy as a free-space photon into the dielectric (if the dielectric is uniform).
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