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Summary:

As we become more and more reliant on silicon and bandwidth, the need for fundamental technology breakthroughs has never been more acute. Scientists are working on those solutions and the marriage of optical and silicon is an area of immense focus. Here are three notable breakthroughs.

The battle of photos filters that is raging between Twitter and Instagram is interesting and engaging, but there are folks out there working on some cool technologies, especially in the fiber optic and chip world, that are going to boost our online future.

Choo-CVRMaterial-PR-NEWS-WEB_0Look ma, I shrunk the light beams: Waveguides are hollow tubes that help channel (light) waves and typically the width of the waveguide needs to be similar in magnitude to the wavelength of the guided wave. This has imposed limitations on the size of the optical devices. Now Caltech researchers, co-led by assistant professor of electrical engineering Hyuck Choo, have figured out a way to get around this natural limit. They’ve come up with a way to make light beams smaller and smaller by developing a new kind of waveguide device that can focus light to a few nanometers. What that means is that we can create even smaller optical components, which in turn can be used inside networking gear, data center equipment and even inside imaging devices. It also mean we can use current optical fibers to cram even more data inside them.

The waveguide device is made of amorphous silicon dioxide (much like common glass) and is covered in a thin layer of gold. As light passes through the device, photons interact with electrons at the interface between gold and silicon dioxide. The electrons oscillate and those oscillations propagate along as waves, carrying the same information as the light waves. The new device is built using traditional chip making technologies, thus making it easier to produce and bring to the market.

Move over Silicon, make way for new chip materials. Silicon might be the building block of our digital life, but researchers at MIT believe that it is time to pay attention to new materials. They have come up with what they describe as the smallest indium gallium arsenide transistor, which is 22 nanometers (a billionth of a meter) in length.

Indium gallium arsenide has already found use in fiber-optic communications and radar technologies, but the new small size transistor is aimed at computing devices and replacing silicon, according to Jesús del Alamo, the Donner Professor of Science in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), who co-developed it with EECS graduate student Jianqian Lin and Dimitri Antoniadis, the Ray and Maria Stata Professor of Electrical Engineering.

Why is this important? Well, MIT researchers argue that the since silicon transistors are getting harder and harder to shrink, the amount of current that can be produced by the devices is also shrinking, limiting their speed of operation. So, in order for Moore’s Law to go on, del Alamo points out that alternatives to silicon are needed. By building a tiny transistor using Indium Gallium Arsenide, they claim to have a viable contender.

ibm photonicsOptics & Silicon get hitched: This marriage of optical and silicon is an area of immense focus, and IBM is spearheading the movement. IBM has come up with new chips that combine traditional silicon based electronic parts with optical components that will lead to much faster and beefier networks.  Stacey has all the details.

[Bonus link] Fibers secured: Toshiba and Cambridge University scientists have come up with a way to boost the security of data over fiber optic cables, the New York Times reports. The fiber optic networks are prone to eavesdropping, but these researchers have come up with ways to make the networks more secure. Read more at the New York Times’ website.

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  1. It’s all about smaller, meaning the wearable revolution has arrived. It will be fascinating to see how many devices become small enough and use such a small amount of energy that we’ll walking around with the inconceivable.

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