Colour me purple, or red, or green, or...

Imagine a miniature device that suffuses each room in your house with a different hue of the rainbow--purple for the living room, perhaps, blue for the bedroom, green for the kitchen.

A team led by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has, for the first time, developed nanoscale devices that divide incident white light into its component colours based on the direction of illumination, or directs these colours to a predetermined set of output angles.

Viewed from afar, the device, referred to as a directional colour filter, resembles a diffraction grating, a flat metal surface containing parallel grooves or slits that split light into different colours.

However, unlike a grating, the nanometer-scale grooves etched into the opaque metal film are not periodic - not equally spaced. They are either a set of grooved lines or concentric circles that vary in spacing, much smaller than the wavelength of visible light. These properties shrink the size of the filter and allow it to perform many more functions than a grating can.

For instance, the device's nonuniform, or aperiodic, grid can be tailored to send a particular wavelength of light to any desired location. T

he filter has several promising applications, including generating closely spaced red, green and blue colour pixels for displays, harvesting solar energy, sensing the direction of incoming light and measuring the thickness of ultrathin coatings placed atop the filter.

In addition to selectively filtering incoming white light based on the location of the source, the filter can also operate in a second way. By measuring the spectrum of colours passing through a filter custom-designed to deflect specific wavelengths of light at specific angles, researchers can pinpoint the location of an unknown source of light striking the device. This could be critical to determine if that source, for instance, is a laser aimed at an aircraft.

"Our directional filter, with its aperiodic architecture, can function in many ways that are fundamentally not achievable with a device such as a grating, which has a periodic structure," said NIST physicist Amit Agrawal. "With this custom-designed device, we are able to manipulate multiple wavelengths of light simultaneously."