Researchers in the United States and Switzerland have developed an optical switch that allows light to move between chips in 2 billionth sins, much faster than other similar devices. The compact switch, the researchers say, is the first to run at low enough voltage, so it can be integrated into a silicon chip and change the direction of light with very low signal loss, promising to “make a big difference” in areas such as quantum computers. The study was published online on the website of the journal Science.
Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) say the study is an important step toward creating computers that use light instead of electricity to process information. Relying on photons to transmit data within a computer has several advantages over relying on electrons for communication. First, photons run faster than electrons and do not waste energy by heating computer components, improving computer performance. For decades, optical fibers have used optical signals to transmit information over long distances, but fiber optics have taken up too much space to transmit data between computer chips.
In the new optical device, a beam of light is limited to a tubular waveguide that has an outlet ramp, some of which can be shot into a cavity just a few nanometers from the ramp and carved into a disk, the Physicist Organization Network reported Thursday. The switch also has another key component: a layer of gold that hangs dozens of nanometres above the silicon disk. These nanogold, silicon optics, electrical, and mechanical components are tightly combined to guide light in and out of a microchannel, changing its speed and direction of travel.
Study co-author Christian Hafner of NIST and the Federal Institute of Technology zurich (ETH) noted that some researchers had previously thought that light-electric-mechanical switches were impractical because they were “big”, slow to operate and too high-voltage, and that the components of computer chips could not be sustained. But the latest switch solves the problem. The compact design of the device ensures a loss of only 2.5% of the optical signal, compared with 60% on the previous switch.
The researchers say the device is expected to “make a big difference” in a number of areas, including driverless and neural networks. In addition, the new switch is expected to become an integral part of quantum computers because it uses very little energy when changing light signals.
Although scientists have only developed models so far, they can be used in business. The team is now making the device smaller by reducing the distance between the silicon wafer and the gold film, which will further reduce signal loss.
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Traditional silicon chips have been legendary in Moore’s Law. According to this law, about every 18 to 24 months, the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles and the performance of the chip doubles. But as chips get smaller and the number of transistors on them grows, Moore’s Law is increasingly challenging the limits. That’s why researchers are exploring new chips to find new breakthroughs in chip development, including photonic chips, quantum chips, and more. These new chips are just emerging, but the future could disrupt the ecology of the entire chip industry.