A team of Stanford researchers has discovered how to switch a laser beam on and off up to 100 billion times per second. This is exciting because light can transmit data much faster than electricity. This discovery may be a major step towards harnessing the speed of light inside electronic devices.
Ultimately, the Stanford team hopes to develop a tiny modulator or "shutter" that can transform a beam of light into digital data by selectively absorbing photons.
Since goal is to transmit information between computer chips, the challenge is to make a shutter out of relatively inexpensive materials that can be easily incorporated into chips on a commercial scale. The shutter developed at Stanford is remarkable because it uses silicon and germanium, both common materials in semiconductor manufacturing.
If this technology can be refined and mass-produced, it has many potential applications:
Such an advance could have broad applications both in accelerating the already declining cost of optical networking and in potentially transforming computers in the future by making it possible to interconnect computer chips at extremely high data rates.
Currently, the communications industry uses costly equipment to transmit data over optical fibers at up to 10 billion bits per second. However, researchers are already experimenting with optically linked computers in which components may be located on different sides of the globe. Cheap optical switches will also make it possible to create data superhighways inside computers, making it possible to reorganize them for better performance.
"The vision here is that, with the much stronger physics, we can imagine large numbers - hundreds or even thousands - of optical connections off of chips," said David A.B. Miller, director of the Solid State and Photonics Laboratory at Stanford University. "Those large numbers could get rid of the bottlenecks of wiring, bottlenecks that are quite evident today and are one of the reasons the clock speeds on your desktop computer have not really been going up much in recent years." NYT permalink]
PhysOrg has more details on the physics behind the discovery.