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Energy efficient computers will run on light

Technologies that run on light

30 Jul 2019

Processing data using light may be the new way forward, with computers able to transmit data faster, more efficiently, and consuming far less energy.
Tiffany Hionas

Photon diode – a semiconductor device which converts light into electrical current – allows light to follow in from only one direction which will be ideal for small consumer electronics. Mark Lawrence, a Postdoctoral Scholar at Stanford University, US, stressed that this device is the future of faster and more efficient information processing.

‘Diodes are ubiquitous in modern electronics, from LEDs (light emitting diodes) to solar cells (essentially LEDs run in reverse) to integrated circuits for computing and communications,’ said Jennifer Dionne, Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford.

Dionne and Lawrence have designed the new nanoscale photon diode, hoping it will generate a successful outcome. Dionne stated: ‘Efficient photonic diodes [are] paramount to enabling next-generation computing, communication and even energy conversion technologies.’

Lawrence believes that successful results will mean an all optical computer will be put into place, where light will replace electricity, and alongside photons, will drive all information processing. An increase in speed and light would subsequently lead to bringing some of the hardest scientific, mathematical and economic problems a step closer to fast solutions.

However, a light-based diode brings along a few challenges. Firstly, light should move forward in the same way that it moves backwards – making it flow in one direction necessitates new materials.

Other researchers have attempted to solve this by running light through a polariser. The goal of this is to make light waves move in a uniform direction by running light through the polariser and through a crystalline material in a magnetic field. The polariser will eventually usher the light out once it is matched to that polarisation.

A second method for creating rotation in crystal is by using another light beam. This beam is polarised, meaning that its electrical field can take on a spiral motion. As a result, it generates rotating acoustic vibrations in the crystal, enabling more light to exit.

The Dionne lab works on manipulating light using tiny nano-antennas and nanostructured materials to create a small and efficient structure. Researchers are particularly interested in seeing how this might impact the development of brain – like computers.

The team have set the stage for faster and more energy efficient computers, using light rather than electricity to transport data. This idea can be designed and utilised to find other solutions to communication problems. As Lawrence clarifies that, ‘someday we could have an all-optical chip that does everything electrons do and more.’

DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-11175-z

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