For years there has been talk within the computer industry of optical computing being the next big thing. Replacing electronic components with light-bearing ones – think tiny fibre optic cables – promised startling breakthroughs in computational speed. But up until now there has always been a problem making the optical components small enough for computers.
A team of European researchers has just demonstrated ‘light on a wire’ technologies that could lead to computing systems that can combine electronics and optical communications in one system. They call it plasmonics and it makes use of a physical property called electron plasma oscillation to transmit both electronic and optical signals down the same wire. What’s exciting about this is that while the plasmonic technique has been demonstrated before, this team have managed to get the idea to work using existing commercial lithography chip-manufacturing techniques.
As Anatoly Zayats, a researcher who’s been working on the project on behalf of the EU, says: “For the last five years or so it has been possible to build an optical computer chip, but with all-optical components it would have to measure something like half a metre by half a metre and would consume enormous power. With plasmonics, we can make the circuitry small enough to fit in a normal PC while maintaining optical speeds.”
Zayats expects commercial results in five to ten years and a French chip manufacturer is drawing up plans. Looks like a good day for the European computer industry.