Scientists from the University of Surrey, University of Cambridge and the University of Southampton have created a material that could use light to bring together different computing functions into one component, leading to all-optical systems, enabling computers to transfer information using light instead of electrons, and increase computer processing speeds and power.
The researchers found that it’s possible to change the electronic properties of amorphous chalcogenides, a glass material already being used in optical devices such as CDs and DVDs, to make computers much faster in the future. The researchers unlocked the potential of chalcogenides by doping the glass with an ion of the element bismuth. This meant that they were able to create the useful optical material without needing ridiculously high temperatures, and also without using a large amount of doping agents – something that has, in the past, rendered chalcogenides incompatible with current computing technology.
“The challenge is to find a single material that can effectively use and control light to carry information around a computer. Much like how the web uses light to deliver information, we want to use light to both deliver and process computer data. This has eluded researchers for decades, but now we have now shown how a widely used glass can be manipulated to conduct negative electrons, as well as positive charges, creating what are known as ‘pn-junction’ devices. This should enable the material to act as a light source, a light guide and a light detector – something that can carry and interpret optical information. In doing so, this could transform the computers of tomorrow, allowing them to effectively process information at much faster speeds,” said project leader Dr Richard Curry, who works at Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute.
The results of this research are expected to be integrated into computers within 10 years. The glass is already being developed and used in next-generation computer memory technology known as CRAM. CRAM is essentially where a chalcogenide glass has its phases swapped around between crystalline and amorphous with the application of heat. In terms of speed, CRAM could potentially beat out current hard drive technology (including Flash memory) many thousands of times over.
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