Scientists at the University of Utah have created a super-small photonic silicon chip that might make light-speed computing a real thing.  Essentially, the chip is a compact beamsplitter: it takes an incoming light wave and splits it in two.

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[…”This is analogous to separating two channels of communication (for example, a video stream from PBS and another from Netflix). Previously such separation would have required time and power-consuming electronics or if photonics devices were used, they would have been much larger (so much harder to integrate onto a chip),…”]

Rajesh Menon, associate professor, The University of Utah.

When you use the Internet, photons containing data stream along and down a fiber optic cable. When they hit your home computer, they get converted into electrons so they can be understood and used by your computer. While it sounds amazing, this doesn’t mean it works particularly well. Photons can often sit in queue waiting to become electrons, leading to a data bottleneck.

ultra compact beamsplitter, photonic chip
photo credit: Ultracompact beamsplitter by Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

These newly created photonic chips do away with the paradigm completely, swapping the conversion of photons to electrons for dealing with light particles alone. Photons are the fastest known particles in the universe, meaning computing could get very fast, very soon.

Creating the chip was a long time coming; until now the smallest beamsplitter ever created was 100 x 100 microns across. The team at Utah has more than halved that size: this beamsplitter is 2.4 x 2.4 micros. That is just a little bigger than a bacterium (at 2 microns across) and a lot smaller than your own red blood cells (which are about 10 microns).

What will this cost consumers?

According to the team, not much: the small size actually means fewer materials are being used, and the process to create the chips are no different from those in preexisting processes in silicon electronics.

[…”This means that we can exploit the vast existing manufacturing infrastructure to enable integrated photonics”…]

– Rajesh Menon, associate professor, The University of Utah.

In addition, these photonic chips could theoretically slice your electricity bill. Since the chips use photons over electrons, they need less power to run and last far longer. Due to having and generating less energy, they also create less heat.

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Less energy could also lead to environmental benefits:

[…”Data centers today consume over 2% of the total global electricity. Reducing power consumption in data centers and other electronics can go a long way to reduce our CO2 emissions and stem global climate change,”…]

– Rajesh Menon, associate professor, The University of Utah.

The team at Utah has ambitions to produce more devices like this in the future.

[…”Our vision is to create a library of ultra-compact devices (including beamsplitters, but also other devices) that can then be all connected together in a variety of different ways to enable both optical computing and communications…Next, we need to fabricate these in a standard process at a company, and then provide this library of devices to designers and hopefully, unleash their creativity…I believe that these devices will usher in unpredictable, but unbelievably exciting applications.”…]

– Rajesh Menon, associate professor, The University of Utah.

[Nature Photonics Via The Optical Society]

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