The time it takes to switch on and off electric current determines the rate at which signals can be processed and sampled in modern information technology1,2,3,4. Field-effect transistors1,2,3,5,6 are able to control currents at frequencies of the order of or higher than 100 gigahertz, but electric interconnects may hamper progress towards reaching the terahertz (1012 hertz) range. All-optical injection of currents through interfering photoexcitation pathways7,8,9,10 or photoconductive switching of terahertz transients11,12,13,14,15,16 has made it possible to control electric current on a subpicosecond timescale in semiconductors. Insulators have been deemed unsuitable for both methods, because of the need for either ultraviolet light or strong fields, which induce slow damage or ultrafast breakdown17,18,19,20, respectively. Here we report the feasibility of electric signal manipulation in a dielectric. A few-cycle optical waveform reversibly increases—free from breakdown—the a.c. conductivity of amorphous silicon dioxide (fused silica) by more than 18 orders of magnitude within 1 femtosecond, allowing electric currents to be driven, directed and switched by the instantaneous light field. Our work opens the way to extending electronic signal processing and high-speed metrology into the petahertz (1015 hertz) domain.
- Advanced Materials Science