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Nature. 2011 Jan 20;469(7330):385-8. doi: 10.1038/nature09698.

Probing the electromagnetic field of a 15-nanometre hotspot by single molecule imaging.

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Materials Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California 94720, USA.


When light illuminates a rough metallic surface, hotspots can appear, where the light is concentrated on the nanometre scale, producing an intense electromagnetic field. This phenomenon, called the surface enhancement effect, has a broad range of potential applications, such as the detection of weak chemical signals. Hotspots are believed to be associated with localized electromagnetic modes, caused by the randomness of the surface texture. Probing the electromagnetic field of the hotspots would offer much insight towards uncovering the mechanism generating the enhancement; however, it requires a spatial resolution of 1-2 nm, which has been a long-standing challenge in optics. The resolution of an optical microscope is limited to about half the wavelength of the incident light, approximately 200-300 nm. Although current state-of-the-art techniques, including near-field scanning optical microscopy, electron energy-loss spectroscopy, cathode luminescence imaging and two-photon photoemission imaging have subwavelength resolution, they either introduce a non-negligible amount of perturbation, complicating interpretation of the data, or operate only in a vacuum. As a result, after more than 30 years since the discovery of the surface enhancement effect, how the local field is distributed remains unknown. Here we present a technique that uses Brownian motion of single molecules to probe the local field. It enables two-dimensional imaging of the fluorescence enhancement profile of single hotspots on the surfaces of aluminium thin films and silver nanoparticle clusters, with accuracy down to 1.2 nm. Strong fluorescence enhancements, up to 54 and 136 times respectively, are observed in those two systems. This strong enhancement indicates that the local field, which decays exponentially from the peak of a hotspot, dominates the fluorescence enhancement profile.

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