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Want Faster Electronics? Researchers Use Light in Transistors

Dec 01, 2016 05:58 AM EST

It appears when it comes to fast, light is still the way to go. Modern researchers now point toward the integration of photons -- light particles -- in electronics to boost their performance. But how does it work?

It is helpful to remember that much of the electronics industry corresponds to Moore's Law. It's more an axiom or an observation than a law that electronic devices double in speed and capacity every two years. This is proven true inasmuch as tech companies are creating improvement after improvement every year.

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, also the proponent, said that the number of transistors in a chip will double every two years. These are the tiny switches that make up the fundamental unit of electronic gadgets. The smaller transistors are, the less electricity they need and the faster they get. Now one of the most mind-boggling questions of minds today is just how small could transistors get and where is the point where we can't make smaller transistors? 

According to the Conversation, Intel alone is producing mass transistors 14 nanometers across or just 14 times wider than DNA molecules. They are silicon-based, which is the second-most abundant material on the planet. Now, today's transistors are about 70 silicon atoms wide, meaning the chances of making it smaller are shrinking by the second.

Transistors currently use electrical signals -- or electrons moving from one point to the other -- to communicate. But what if we use light instead of electricity? According to, researchers postulate transistors could even go faster with photons, and if we integrate light-based processing with existing chips, then we are in the brink of another breakthrough.

It's important to understand that inside every transistor is the capability to move electrons from one place to the next. Meaning incorporating light to the process means figuring out a way to move photons. Subatomic particles travel in a wave-like motion and vibrate as they move in one direction. According to Nature, given that photons are bigger than electrons, the equipment to handle them must be bigger than today.

However, it has its own perks. A photonic chip would only need a few light sources, as very small numbers of lenses and mirrors are only needed to move them around. Also, photons can travel 20 times faster than electrons, meaning they can be made into chips at least 20 times faster than what we have today.

Sadly, we are still leaps away from making actual photonic chips. However, if Moore's "Law" is really the reality today, then we can get light-based laptops and smartphones soon enough. 

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