Scientists have discovered a way to store light-based information as sound waves on a computer chip. Why does that matter? The conversion is critical to shifting away from the inefficient electronic computers currently in use to a light-based computer that moves data at a much faster velocity than anything on the market right now.
Light-based photonic computers have the potential to run at least 20 times faster in theory, and they won’t produce heat or require anywhere near as much energy as existing devices. By processing data in the form of photons rather than electrons IBM, Intel and others have been seeking a method of slowing the data down from its light form so that the processing power of modern computers would be sufficient to handle it all.
Coding information into photons is surprisingly easy, as we do when we send information via optical fiber – however; retrieving information at the speed of light and then processing it is not yet possible because it’s simply too fast. This new alternative slows down the light and converts it into sound, allowing researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia to access data at a speed far greater electronic computing, though significantly slower than the speed of light.
“The information in our chip in acoustic form travels at a velocity five orders of magnitude slower than in the optical domain,” said project supervisor Birgit Stiller. However, that also means that computers can still achieve amazingly high speeds with no heat caused by electronic resistance, and no interference from electromagnetic radiation.
“This is an important step forward in the field of optical information processing as this concept fulfills all requirements for current and future generation optical communication systems,” added team member Benjamin Eggleton.
First, photonic information enters the chip as a pulse of light, where it interacts with a ‘write’ pulse, producing an acoustic wave that stores the data. Another pulse of light, called the ‘read’ pulse, then accesses this sound data and transmits as light once more pulse of data. While unimpeded light will pass through the chip in 2 to 3 nanoseconds, once stored as a sound wave, information can remain on the chip for up to 10 nanoseconds, which is long enough for it to be retrieved and processed.
“Building an acoustic buffer inside a chip improves our ability to control information by several orders of magnitude,” said Merklein. “Our system is not limited to a narrow bandwidth. So unlike previous systems this allows us to store and retrieve information at multiple wavelengths simultaneously, vastly increasing the efficiency of the device,” added Stiller.
The research has been published in Nature Communications for peer review and may usher in a new era of information dissemination at the speed of sound, as we continue searching for ways to go even faster and one day access information at true light speed ahead.