Researchers at the University of Utah have developed an incredibly tiny beamsplitter which divides light into two separate channels of information, an accomplishment which could be instrumental in the development of computers millions of times more powerful than current devices.
Currently, the basic functional component of a computer is the silicon transistor. In a nutshell, the transistor works by allowing or stopping the transition of electrons through it, which corresponds to 1s and 0s – the binary code the computer actually understands. Before it reaches the computer, information is transmitted as photons of light, but it then has to be converted into electrons in order to be usable by the machine. Using light for the entire process would be the equivalent to upgrading from a bicycle to a race car – and this is precisely what the University of Utah team is trying to make feasible.
The engineers have created an incredibly small polarization beamsplitter (an optical device which sort of resembles a QR code) on top of a silicon chip, which splits incoming light into two components. Until now, the smallest one of these components was more than 100 by 100 microns. However the University of Utah team has managed to create beamsplitters that are 2.6 by 2.6 microns (that’s dozens of times thinner than a human hair!), basically as small as they can physically get. Due to their incredibly small size, millions of these devices could be placed on a silicon chip, directing light in different ways, and eventually leading to the development of computers which are much faster than current machines.
Another great thing about this technology is that it isn’t even all that revolutionary, like quantum computing is supposed to be. This beamsplitter can be made using existing silicon chip manufacturing techniques, so it’s not going to be expensive at all. Also, since photonic chips move photons instead of electrons, they use less power and don’t heat up as much as their electronic counterparts.
Tech giants like Intel and IBM are already working on silicon photonic technology, which could initially be used in cloud servers, data centers, and supercomputers. But, as always in this field, once that happens it’s only a matter of time until light-speed computing comes to our laptops and smartphones.