Optical computer research

Scientists at Queen’s University Belfast and Imperial College London have been awarded £6m to develop high-speed ‘optical computers’ that process information using light signals.

Computers that use light to process large amounts of data are one of many possible applications of a new £6m research programme at Queen’s University Belfast and Imperial College London.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is funding the two universities to establish a research programme on the fundamental science of ‘nanoplasmonic devices’, whose key components include metal structures that guide and direct light. Industry support for the project is being provided by INTEL, Seagate, Ericsson, Oxonica, IMEC and the National Physics Laboratory.

The structures have been made to interact with light in a highly controlled way, which means they could one day be used to build new high-speed ‘optical computers’ that process information using light signals instead of electric current.

At present, the speed at which computers process information is limited by the time it takes for the information to be transferred between electronic components. Currently, this information is transferred using tiny metallic wires that transmit the signals as an electric current.

To speed up the process, the scientists at Queen’s and Imperial hope to develop a way of sending the signals along the same wires using light.

In order to achieve this, they are developing a raft of new metallic devices including tiny nanoscale sources of light, nanoscale ‘waveguides’ to guide light along a desired route, and nanoscale detectors to pick up the light signals.

Similar approaches may also help in the development of devices for faster internet services.

Prof Anatoly Zayats from the Queen’s University’s Centre for Nanostructured Media, who leads the project, said: ‘This is basic research into how light interacts with matter on the nanoscale.

‘But we will work together with and listen to our industrial partners to point research in a direction that will hopefully lead to new improved products and services that everyone can buy from the shelf.’

Prof Stefan Maier, who leads the research team at Imperial, added: ‘In the future, these optical computers will provide us with more processing power and higher speed. This will also open the door to a world of possibilities in scientific fields at the interface with the biosciences, and perhaps even in the world of personal computing.’