Optical Computers

prism with white light going in and rainbow going out

What are Optical Computers?

The computers we use today use transistors and semiconductors to control electricity. Computers of the future may utilize crystals and metamaterials to control light. Optical computers make use of light particles called photons.

Image source: Wikimedia

NASA scientists are working to solve the need for computer speed using light

Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. That's 982,080,000 feet per second -- or 11,784,960,000 inches. In a billionth of a second, one nanosecond, photons of light travel just a bit less than a foot, not considering resistance in air or of an optical fiber strand or thin film. Just right for doing things very quickly in microminiaturized computer chips.

man working on laser
Dr. Donald Frazier monitors a blue laser light used with electro-optical materials

"Entirely optical computers are still some time in the future," says Dr. Frazier, "but electro-optical hybrids have been possible since 1978, when it was learned that photons can respond to electrons through media such as lithium niobate. Newer advances have produced a variety of thin films and optical fibers that make optical interconnections and devices practical. We are focusing on thin films made of organic molecules, which are more light sensitive than inorganics.

Organics can perform functions such as switching, signal processing and frequency doubling using less power than inorganics. Inorganics such as silicon used with organic materials let us use both photons and electrons in current hybrid systems, which will eventually lead to all-optical computer systems."

"What we are accomplishing in the lab today will result in development of super-fast, super-miniaturized, super-lightweight and lower cost optical computing and optical communication devices and systems," Frazier explained.

Article and image from: Science@NASA