Optical spatial solitons: historical overview and recent advances

Rep Prog Phys. 2012 Aug;75(8):086401. doi: 10.1088/0034-4885/75/8/086401. Epub 2012 Jul 26.


Solitons, nonlinear self-trapped wavepackets, have been extensively studied in many and diverse branches of physics such as optics, plasmas, condensed matter physics, fluid mechanics, particle physics and even astrophysics. Interestingly, over the past two decades, the field of solitons and related nonlinear phenomena has been substantially advanced and enriched by research and discoveries in nonlinear optics. While optical solitons have been vigorously investigated in both spatial and temporal domains, it is now fair to say that much soliton research has been mainly driven by the work on optical spatial solitons. This is partly due to the fact that although temporal solitons as realized in fiber optic systems are fundamentally one-dimensional entities, the high dimensionality associated with their spatial counterparts has opened up altogether new scientific possibilities in soliton research. Another reason is related to the response time of the nonlinearity. Unlike temporal optical solitons, spatial solitons have been realized by employing a variety of noninstantaneous nonlinearities, ranging from the nonlinearities in photorefractive materials and liquid crystals to the nonlinearities mediated by the thermal effect, thermophoresis and the gradient force in colloidal suspensions. Such a diversity of nonlinear effects has given rise to numerous soliton phenomena that could otherwise not be envisioned, because for decades scientists were of the mindset that solitons must strictly be the exact solutions of the cubic nonlinear Schrödinger equation as established for ideal Kerr nonlinear media. As such, the discoveries of optical spatial solitons in different systems and associated new phenomena have stimulated broad interest in soliton research. In particular, the study of incoherent solitons and discrete spatial solitons in optical periodic media not only led to advances in our understanding of fundamental processes in nonlinear optics and photonics, but also had a very important impact on a variety of other disciplines in nonlinear science. In this paper, we provide a brief overview of optical spatial solitons. This review will cover a variety of issues pertaining to self-trapped waves supported by different types of nonlinearities, as well as various families of spatial solitons such as optical lattice solitons and surface solitons. Recent developments in the area of optical spatial solitons, such as 3D light bullets, subwavelength solitons, self-trapping in soft condensed matter and spatial solitons in systems with parity-time symmetry will also be discussed briefly.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Electromagnetic Fields*
  • Elementary Particles*
  • Models, Chemical*
  • Scattering, Radiation*