Phononic Crystals: Harnessing Sound and Heat at the Nanoscale

What are Phononic Crystals?

Phononic crystals are artificially engineered materials that consist of periodic structures designed to control and manipulate the propagation of phonons, which are quasiparticles representing the collective excitation of atoms or molecules in a solid or liquid. These crystals exhibit unique properties that arise from their ability to interact with and control acoustic and thermal waves at the nanoscale.
Schematics of phononic crystal of different dimensionalities
(a) Schematics of phononic crystal of different dimensionalities. (b) An example of phonon band structure. The orange area marks the forbidden band gap. (c) Examples of phononic crystals efficient at different wavelength scales. The phononic crystal for hypersound is constructed of air holes in an epoxy matrix with the lattice periodicity a = 1.36 µm and the one for heat is in a silicon matrix of air holes with a = 34 nm. (Image: adapted from DOI:10.1038/nature12608)

Key Concepts in Phononic Crystals

Phononic crystals are characterized by several key concepts that enable their unique properties and applications:
  • Periodic Structure: Phononic crystals are composed of a periodic arrangement of materials with different elastic properties, such as density and speed of sound. This periodic structure creates a band structure for phonons, analogous to the electronic band structure in semiconductors.
  • Phononic Band Gaps: The periodic structure of phononic crystals gives rise to phononic band gaps, which are frequency ranges where phonons are prohibited from propagating through the crystal. These band gaps can be engineered by carefully designing the geometry and material composition of the crystal.
  • Phonon Manipulation: By controlling the phononic band structure, researchers can manipulate the propagation of phonons in phononic crystals. This allows for the creation of phononic devices that can guide, filter, or localize phonons, enabling novel applications in acoustic and thermal management.

Types of Phononic Crystals

Phononic crystals can be classified into different types based on their dimensionality and the nature of the periodic structure:

One-Dimensional (1D) Phononic Crystals

One-dimensional phononic crystals consist of a periodic arrangement of layers with different elastic properties along a single direction. These crystals are the simplest form of phononic crystals and are often used for studying fundamental phenomena and designing acoustic filters and mirrors.

Two-Dimensional (2D) Phononic Crystals

Two-dimensional phononic crystals have a periodic structure in two dimensions, typically consisting of a periodic array of inclusions or holes in a matrix material. These crystals offer more flexibility in designing phononic band structures and can be used for applications such as acoustic waveguides, sound focusing, and thermal management in planar devices.

Three-Dimensional (3D) Phononic Crystals

Three-dimensional phononic crystals exhibit a periodic structure in all three spatial dimensions. These crystals provide the highest level of control over phonon propagation and can be designed to have complete phononic band gaps, where phonons are prohibited from propagating in any direction. 3D phononic crystals find applications in acoustic cloaking, vibration isolation, and thermal insulation.

Phononic Crystals and Metamaterials

Phononic crystals are closely related to the concept of metamaterials, which are artificial materials engineered to have properties not found in natural materials. Metamaterials derive their unique properties from their carefully designed structure rather than their chemical composition.
In the context of phononic crystals, the periodic arrangement of materials with different elastic properties can be considered a type of acoustic metamaterial. By designing the geometry and material composition of the unit cell, researchers can create phononic metamaterials with exotic properties, such as negative effective density or negative effective modulus.
Phononic metamaterials can exhibit properties that go beyond those of conventional phononic crystals, such as subwavelength focusing, negative refraction, and cloaking. These properties arise from the local resonances and complex wave interactions within the metamaterial structure.
The concept of metamaterials has greatly expanded the possibilities for wave manipulation in phononic crystals, enabling the realization of novel acoustic and thermal devices with unprecedented functionalities.

Applications of Phononic Crystals

Phononic crystals have a wide range of potential applications in various fields, including:

Acoustic Devices

Phononic crystals can be used to design acoustic devices such as filters, waveguides, and lenses. By engineering the phononic band structure, researchers can create devices that selectively transmit or reflect sound waves of specific frequencies, enabling applications in noise reduction, ultrasonic imaging, and acoustic signal processing.

Thermal Management

Phononic crystals can also be employed for thermal management at the nanoscale. By controlling the propagation of phonons, which are the primary carriers of heat in solids, phononic crystals can be designed to have high thermal conductivity in specific directions while suppressing heat transfer in others. This property can be exploited for applications such as thermal insulation, heat guiding, and thermoelectric energy conversion.


Phononic crystals can be integrated with optical structures to create optomechanical devices that exploit the interaction between light and sound. These devices can be used for sensing, signal processing, and quantum information processing, where the coupling between optical and mechanical modes enables the manipulation and readout of phonons at the quantum level.

Fabrication and Characterization

The fabrication of phononic crystals requires precise control over the geometry and material composition at the nanoscale. Various nanofabrication techniques, such as electron beam lithography, nanoimprint lithography, and self-assembly, are employed to create periodic structures with feature sizes comparable to the wavelength of phonons.
Characterizing phononic crystals involves probing their acoustic and thermal properties at the nanoscale. Techniques such as Brillouin light scattering, ultrafast laser spectroscopy, and scanning thermal microscopy are used to study the phononic band structure, phonon dispersion, and thermal transport in these materials.

Challenges and Future Perspectives

Despite the significant progress in the field of phononic crystals, several challenges remain to be addressed. One of the main challenges is the fabrication of large-scale, defect-free phononic crystals with precise control over their properties. The development of scalable and cost-effective manufacturing techniques is crucial for the practical implementation of phononic devices.
Future research in phononic crystals will focus on exploring new materials, geometries, and functionalities. The integration of phononic crystals with other nanoscale systems, such as photonic and electronic structures, will enable the development of multifunctional devices that can manipulate and control multiple types of waves simultaneously. Additionally, the investigation of nonlinear and topological phenomena in phononic crystals will open up new possibilities for advanced wave manipulation and robust phononic devices.

Further Reading