Free electrons are excellent tools to probe and manipulate nanoscale optical fields with emerging applications in ultrafast spectromicroscopy and quantum metrology. However, advances in this field are hindered by the small probability associated with the excitation of single optical modes by individual free electrons. Here, we theoretically investigate the scaling properties of the electron-driven excitation probability for a wide variety of optical modes including plasmons in metallic nanostructures and Mie resonances in dielectric cavities, spanning a broad spectral range that extends from the ultraviolet to the infrared region. The highest probabilities for the direct generation of three-dimensionally confined modes are observed at low electron and mode energies in small structures, with order-unity (∼100%) coupling demanding the use of <100 eV electrons interacting with eV polaritons confined down to tens of nanometers in space. Electronic transitions in artificial atoms also emerge as practical systems to realize strong coupling to few-eV free electrons. In contrast, conventional dielectric cavities reach a maximum probability in the few-percent range. In addition, we show that waveguide modes can be generated with higher-than-unity efficiency by phase-matched interaction with grazing electrons, suggesting a practical method to create multiple excitations of a localized optical mode by an individual electron through funneling the so-generated propagating photons into a confining cavity─an alternative approach to direct electron–cavity interaction. Our work provides a roadmap to optimize electron–photon coupling with potential applications in electron spectromicroscopy as well as nonlinear and quantum optics at the nanoscale.

European Research Council (ERC) , The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)
ACS Nano
Photonic Materials

Di Giulio, V., Akerboom, E., Polman, A., & García de Abajo, J. (2024). Toward Optimum Coupling between Free Electrons and Confined Optical Modes. ACS Nano, 18(22), 14255–14275. doi:10.1021/acsnano.3c12977