It’s hard to not be impressed with computers these days. What we use to send an email to a friend, or a document to a co-worker is powered by countless little parts that each have their own little job. It’s pretty amazing how the whole thing works, not to mention how fast data transmission can be to get the job done. But technically speaking, if there’s one thing that could make computers better, it’s faster data transmission. I bet most of us would consider faster processors to be the it factor for improving the area, but it looks like the professionals have something better in mind (they’re good at their job for a reason). The team from Oxford and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany, have figured out a way to use light-based storage mediums as a new method of storing data.
This marks the first ever optical-only chip that could one day turn into commercialized light-based devices. This would mean a transition from solid-state drives (SSDs) using electronic chips to move its data, to something that would tremendously outshine SSDs. Now, don’t get me wrong, researchers came up with the topic of photonic memory a while back. The problem with past efforts, however, was that none have been able to function without receiving constant electricity. The reliance on electronic chips, which create constant heat and resistance, have never been compatible with permanent data storage. This new method eliminates the back-and-forth method (also known as the Neumann bottleneck) of converting optical signals into electrical ones, and then back again, for transmission.
The team, collaborating with, and consisting of researchers Harish Bhaskaran and Wolfram Pernice, say the technique of creating non-volatile photonic memory chips involves “the same technology that enables rewritable CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs”. This waveguide technology moves light from lasers to and from GST (an alloy material made from germanium, tellurium, and antimony), that “changes its structure when hit by a laser”. Instead of using computer time for moving information, this method can retain power without latencies associated with electrical memories. The end result is up to 8 bits of data stored in a single location, with the ability to stay there for “decades”.
If this isn’t an improvement to binary electronic devices, I don’t know what is. As with any new innovative technology, more work is to be done before we will see this commercially. The main objective will be to make the photonic chips a competitive enough size to outshine SSD flash storage. Once all this becomes finalized, we could expect working computers with 100 times faster processing than what we use today. Bring it on.
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