Is Nanotech Going to Create Light-based Computing?

Chris Newmarker

February 18, 2016

2 Min Read
Is Nanotech Going to Create Light-based Computing?

Purdue University researchers think so--with potentially huge benefits for medical device developers. 

Chris Newmarker

Researchers at Purdue University say they're making progress developing metamaterials that shrink the wavelength of light. Their work could help enable the use of light instead of electrons to process and transmit data in computer chips.

"If you have very high bandwidth communication on the chip as well as interconnecting circuits between chips, you can go to faster clock speeds, so faster data processing," Zubin Jacob, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue, said in a news release.

Jacob envisions the advance helping to shrink the bulkiness of a high-performance computer cluster to the size of a standard desktop machine. Miniaturized data processing units could be possible in the long run, a potentially huge boon when it comes to creating ever tinier implantable medical devices.

Instead of relying on precious metals such as gold and silver for the metamaterials, the Purdue metamaterials are made entirely of dielectric materials, or insulators and non-metals. The approach might also overcome a major limitation, because using metals results in the loss of too much light to be practical for many applications.

"A key factor is that we don't use metals at all in this metamaterial, because if you use metals a lot of the light goes into heat and is lost," Jacob said. "We want to bring everything to the silicon platform because this is the best material to integrate electronic and photonic devices on the same chip."

The material had to be anisotropic, which means it travels faster in one direction through the material versus the other direction. This property made it possible to modify the "total internal reflection" principle  presently used to guide light in fiber optics. Jacob and his research team are now working on engineering total internal reflection in optical fibers surrounded by the new silicon-based metamaterial.

The researchers have obtained a U.S. patent on the design.

"Our contribution has been basically the fact that we have been able to adapt this total internal reflection phenomenon down to the nanoscale, which was conventionally thought impossible," Jacob said.

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Chris Newmarker is senior editor of Qmed and MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @newmarker.

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