Bringing The Speed Of Light To Computer Chips

COMPUTING WITH LIGHT--using photons instead of electrons to transmit signals--is a technology that has long been just around the corner. Now, that corner has been turned, literally.

Photonic chips promise big increases in speed because they can pump data 100 to 1,000 times faster than silicon circuits. But there's a hitch: Photons normally won't zip around corners the way electrons do. Without that, photonic chips would be forever huge and expensive, because every "corner" would have to be a curve--a section cut from a circle with a radius of a few millimeters, or upwards of 0.1 inch.

That changed last month. Researchers at the Nano-Photonics Laboratory on Northwestern University's Evanston (Ill.) campus sculpted photonic corners with arcs as tight as 0.25 microns, or 0.00001inches. How? By digging deep trenches on both sides of optical waveguides, or "wires." The air in the trenches insulates the waveguides and keeps the photons inside. The waveguides connect to an optical-switch "transistor," producing what lab director Mee-Koy Chin says is the first all-photonics computer chip--ideal for the computerized switches in today's fiber-optic telecom networks and, in the future, perhaps even optical computers.

To speed the technology to market, G. Robert Tatum renamed the company that funded the $5.2 million lab. Tatum used to be president of Miami-based U.S. Integrated Optics Inc. But he couldn't get a trademark on that name for a planned stock offering. So USIO is now Nanovation Technologies Inc.

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