Siempre alegre, Stanley
Imagine streaming online videos with the quality of a home theatre system, or running any computer program 1,000 times faster than you can now. This could be made possible by researchers at Penn State led by Tony Jun Huang, who are attempting to exploit the speed of light to improve computers. They’re currently working on building photonic circuits that use light to carry information, which would improve speed and capacities exponentially, as photons are much faster and don’t lose as much information as the electrons used in today’s circuits. At the moment, photonic circuits are too big to be practical, so Huang and his team are working on creating a hybrid plasmonic-electrical circuit that will be able to transmit electrons and photons simultaneously. Their first step is to build a plasmonic switch, which will perform the same function as a switch in an electronic circuit, switching the current into two different states: ones and zeroes. “There’s still a long way to go,” Huang says, because he sees his team’s work as not applied work, but instead fundamental research. A working plasmonic circuit might not be completed for five years, but it will be worth the wait—optical computers will be able to perform a billion billion computations per second, and will be cheaper to run because they’ll use significantly less power.