The scientists have shown that an optical signal can be modulated in a 200 nanometer-high waveguide. The signal's phase is modulated as it passes through an air gap between two gold layers, when a force generated by the device slightly deforms the top gold layer.
The scientists propose that when one of these modulators is placed next to a similar static device, it could act as a 2x2 switch, based on evidence reported elsewhere of coupling between adjacent waveguides. The technology could also be useful for electrically tunable plasmonic devices.
Their paper describes "compact nanomechanical plasmonic phase modulators." The scientists experimentally verified such devices in a 23 micron-long waveguide with a gap in the range of 200 nm, but they make a case based on computer modeling that the waveguides can be scaled to as little as 1 micron long with a 20 nm gap, without significant loss. This means optical switches could be scaled closer to electronic device dimensions.