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Dielectrics turned conductor in a flash

Two studies published in this issue highlight the potential for ultrafast signal manipulation in dielectrics using optical fields. When it comes to electrical signal processing, semiconductors have become the materials of choice. However, insulators such as dielectrics could be attractive alternatives: they have a fast response in principle, but usually have extremely low conductivity at low electric fields and break down in large fields. The electronic properties of dielectrics can be controlled with few-cycle laser pulses that permit damage-free exposure of dielectrics to high electric fields. Agustin Schiffrin et al. demonstrate that strong optical laser fields with controlled few-cycle waveforms can reversibly transform a dielectric insulator into a conductor within the optical period (within one femtosecond). Martin Schultze et al. address the crucial issue of ultrafast reversibility, demonstrating that the dielectric can be repeatedly switched ‘on’ and ‘off’ with light fields, without degradation.

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