Once it is made, it maintains its character for a long time."
In fiber optics, normal light waves gradually flatten out; unless the signal is boosted periodically, it disappears. In contrast, solitonic light waves retain their structure and keep going without assistance. Some telecommunication companies have exploited that fact by using solitons to cheaply send signals over long distances.
Before solitons can be fully exploited in a wider range of applications, scientists must learn more about their basic properties, Li said. He's especially interested in how solitons carry a charge through conducting polymers, which consist of long, skinny chains of molecules.
The tiny chains are practically one-dimensional, and this calls some strange physics into play, Li said.
In their PNAS paper, Li and MIT colleagues Xi Lin, Clemens F?rst, and Sidney Yip describe a detailed calculation of what happens to solitons at a quantum-mechanical level as they travel along a chain of the organic polymer polyacetylene.
Their mathematical model builds upon a 1979 model called the Su-Schrieffer-Heeger (SSH) model. Alan Heeger, a University of California, Santa Barbara physicist who discovered solitons, won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his pioneering work on conducting polymers.
Li said the new work extends the SSH model by including the full flexibility of the polymer chain, as well as interactions between electrons.
The finding will likely affect the development of molecular electronics -- devices built from individual molecules.
Because polymer chains tend to bend and twist as solitons pass through them, scientists have wondered whether solitons could be used to power artificial muscles for high-tech robots and devices to aid human mobility. Such muscles would be made of organic polymers, and flex in response to light or electrochemical stimulation.
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