Published March 6, 2017
A tiny, light-based communication tool carries digital information in a swift, swirling motion, like a cyclone.
The optics advancement, described in a study published in the journal Science, could become a central component of next-generation computers designed to handle our growing demand for data and our increasing need for speed.
It may also bring relief to those fretting over the feared end of Moore’s Law, a prediction from within the computing industry that the processing power of computers will double every couple of years.
“We need to rethink what’s inside of these machines—in other words, how computers operate—to ensure we can meet the future demands for data,” says Liang Feng, assistant professor of electrical engineering at UB and the study’s co-lead author along with UB Professor of Electrical Engineering Natalia M. Litchinitser.
For decades, researchers have been able to cram more and more components onto silicon-based computer chips. Their success explains why today’s smartphones have more computing power than the world’s most powerful computers of the 1980s, which cost millions in current dollars and were the size of a large file cabinet.
But many within the industry have expressed concern that this streak of continuous improvement is set to hit a roadblock, possibly within the next five years, as traditional technology nears its limits. An end to Moore’s Law could derail the dissemination of data-intensive innovations like personalized medicine and driverless cars to the masses.
Researchers have been experimenting with a range of approaches to fend off that end, including optical communications, which uses light to carry information. Examples of optical communications vary from old lighthouses to modern fiber optic cables used to watch television and browse the internet.
Lasers form a central part of today’s optical communication systems, and so researchers have been manipulating lasers in various ways, most commonly by funneling different signals into one path to carry more information. But these techniques (known as wavelength-division multiplexing and time-division multiplexing) are also reaching their limits.
The UB-led research team is pushing laser technology forward using another light-manipulation technique. Called orbital angular momentum, it plies a laser beam into a corkscrew formation with a vortex at the center. With information encoded into its many twists and turns, a vortex laser can carry 10 times or more the amount of data than can be contained in a conventional laser’s linear path.
Vortex lasers are nothing new, but until now, they’ve been too large to work with today’s computers. The UB-led team’s innovation, supported by grants from the U.S. Army Research Office, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, was to shrink the vortex laser to the point where it is compatible with computer chips. The technological breakthrough is the result of two years of work inside clean rooms and laboratories in Davis Hall and elsewhere, and has been generating headlines worldwide.
The vortex laser is still in the research stage and is just one component of many, such as advanced transmitters and receivers, that will be needed to continue building more powerful computers and datacenters.
And so, inside Davis Hall, the work continues. For outside, the need for more computing power never slows.
The research was supported with grants from the U.S. Army Research Office, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.