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  • Waveform Project May Advance Photonic Computers
Mar 2007
BATH, England, March 14, 2007 -- The dream of photonic computers -- devices run using light rather than electronics -- could be nearing our desktops. Physicists at the University of Bath will be looking at developing attosecond technology -- the ability to send out light in a continuous series of pulses that last only an attosecond (one billion-billionth of a second) -- in research that could develop photonics technology and allow them to look at atomic structure closer than ever.

In June, Fetah Benabid, a physics professor at Bath, will lead a team of researchers to develop a technique that would enable them to synthesize "waveforms" using light photons with the same accuracy as electrons are used in electronics. Waveform synthesis is the ability to control very precisely the way that electric fields vary their energy.

Fetah-Benabid.jpgOrdinarily, electric fields rise and fall in energy in a regular pattern similar to the troughs and crests of waves on the ocean, but modern electronics allows a close control over the shape of the "wave" -- in effect creating waves that are square or triangular, or other shapes, rather than curved.

It is this control of the variation of the electric field that allows electronic devices such as computers to function in specific ways.

But electronics has its limitations; and the development of ever-smaller silicon chips that have allowed computers to double memory size every 18 months or so will come to an end in the next few years, because the laws of physics do not permit chips smaller than a certain size.

Instead, engineers are looking to the science of photonics as a much more powerful alternative. But so far, photonics can use light that uses waveforms of one shape only -- a curve known as a sine wave -- which has limited value for the communications needed to run a computer, for example.

The Bath researchers want to enable photonics to create waveforms in a variety of different patterns. To do this, they are using the new photonic crystal fibers -- which they said are a great step forward in photonics: Unlike conventional optical fibers, they can channel light without losing much of its energy.

In their research, light of one wavelength will be passed down a photonic crystal fiber, which then branches off in a tree-like arrangement of fibrs, each with a slightly separate wavelength, creating a broad comb-like spectrum of light from ultraviolet to the middle of the infrared range.

This broad spectrum would allow close control over the electric field, which is the basis of conveying enormous amounts of information that modern devices like computers need. They are funded by an £820,000 (about $1,580,000) grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, whyich funds research and postgraduate training in engineering and the physical sciences at universities and other organisations throughout the UK.

“Harnessing optical waves would represent a huge step, perhaps the definitive one, in establishing the photonics era,” said Benabid.

“Since the development of the laser, a major goal in science and technology has been to emulate the breakthroughs of electronics by using optical waves. We feel this project could be a big step in this. If successful, the research will be the basis for a revolution in computer power as dramatic as that over the past 50 years."

Benabid said the technology that could be built if his research is successful could, for instance, make lasers that operate at wavelengths that current technology cannot now create, which would be important for surgery.

The continual series of short bursts of light will not only dramatically affect technology, it will also advance physics by giving researchers the chance to look inside the atom.

Although atoms can now be “seen” using devices such as electron microscopes, it has not been possible to examine their fast dynamics.

By sending the light in short bursts into an atom, they will be able to work out the movements of electrons, the tiny negatively charged particles that orbit the atom’s nucleus.

This may throw light, literally, upon the strange quantum world of subatomic particles, which have no definite position but are only "probably" in one place until observed.

For more information, visit:

The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
The graph of the oscillating variations making up a wave, relative to time.
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