New transparent metamaterials under development could make possible computer chips and interconnecting circuits that use light instead of electrons to process and transmit data, representing a potential leap in performance.
Although optical fibers are now used to transmit large amounts of data over great distances, the technology cannot easily be miniaturized because the wavelength of light is too large to fit within the miniscule dimensions of microcircuits.
“The role of optical fibers is to guide light from point A to point B, in fact, across continents,” said Zubin Jacob, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University. “The biggest advantage of doing this compared to copper cables is that it has a very high bandwidth, so large amounts of data can pass through these optical cables as opposed to copper wires. However, on our computers and consumer electronics we still use copper wires between different parts of the chip. The reason is that you can’t confine light to the same size as a nanoscale copper wire.”
Transparent metamaterials, nanostructured artificial media with transparent building blocks, allow unprecedented control of light and may represent a solution. Researchers are making progress in developing metamaterials that shrink the wavelength of light, pointing toward a strategy to use light instead of electrons to process and transmit data in computer chips.
“If you have very high bandwidth communication on the chip as well as interconnecting circuits between chips, you can go to faster clock speeds, so faster data processing,” Jacob said. Such an advance could make it possible to shrink the bulkiness of a high-performance computer cluster to the size of a standard desktop machine.