“What’s important here is that this is an ‘all-optical’ switch, using only light, with a weak beam affecting a strong one,” said physics professor Daniel Gauthier, the Duke team leader.
Such a switching technique could improve today’s telecommunications switching arrays that must repeatedly and inefficiently convert light to electricity and then back to light, a method especially impractical for very high speed telecommunications networks, Gauthier said.
Until now, Gauthier continued, scientists have primarily demonstrated switching techniques that use stronger light beams to control weaker ones. “And that’s not very useful in a telecommunications networking device because you would need a lot of energy to switch a tiny amount,” he said.
The Duke team’s switching system makes use of an instability that Gauthier initially studied in graduate school.
The scientists point two identical beams of laser light at each other while both opposing beams also pass through a warmed rubidium vapour trapped in a glass vacuum tube.
Normally, such counter-pointed laser light beams would just unresponsively pass through each other, Gauthier said. But this laser light is of just the right infrared wavelength to be affected by the natural excitations of the rubidium atoms.
This interaction between the light and the rubidium atoms triggers an instability that creates two additional beams. When these secondary beams are projected on a screen, they form an optical pattern. That pattern, consisting of a pair of spots, can be rotated to a new alignment when a third “switching” beam is passed through the rubidium vapour.
Crucially, the strength of the switching beam is also much weaker than the original beams. The Duke physicists say they have been able to operate their switch with beams up to 6,500 times weaker than the light in the optical pattern.
“So the idea is, we’ve got beams that are pointing in one direction and might be going down to a particular place in a network,” Gauthier said. “Then, by putting in a very weak beam, we can rotate those original beams to a new orientation. So the spots could then go to different channels in a network system, for example.”
The idea of such a weak signal controlling a stronger one “makes the switch ‘cascadable,’” Gauthier said. “That’s what you need to be able to have the output of one switch affect the input of another switch downstream. No other group we know of has demonstrated this in an all-optical switch.”
So far, the Duke group has used weak switching beams consisting of as few as 2,700 individual particles of light, or photons.
Their work, which appeared the April 29 issue of Science, also suggests possible techniques for using switching beams as weak as single photons, perhaps by reducing the size of the laser beams or modifying the atomic vapour.