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IBM Breakthrough Paves Way For Optical Computers

IBM is using micro-ring resonators to force the light to briefly circle in the same spot, delaying its travel and allowing storage of up to 10 bits of optical information.

It's not quite like catching lightning in a bottle, but researchers at computing giant IBM say they have found a way to harness photons, a breakthrough that could pave the way for ultrafast computers that use light instead of electrons to process information.

Scientists know that optical signals are theoretically more efficient and can carry more data than the electrical signals used by today's computers. But to date they have been largely unable to find a way to store those signals on a microprocessor for any length of time.

In a paper to be formally released Friday, IBM researchers said they've solved that problem by creating an on-chip damming device made of silicon that can buffer the light signals to control the flow of data. "It solves a big problem for us," says IBM researcher, Yurii Vlasov, one of the paper's authors.

The dam, or "delay line," is comprised of up to 100 of what IBM calls micro-ring resonators. The rings force the light to briefly circle in the same spot, delaying its travel and allowing storage of up to 10 bits of optical information. IBM researchers hope to eventually integrate hundreds of these devices onto a single chip.

But don't expect light-based computers on the shelves at Best Buy or other electronics retailers anytime soon. Vlasov says the company is at least ten years away from producing a commercially viable computer that uses photons instead of electrons. "We're approaching the limits of miniaturization, so there are many challenges ahead," he says.

Vlasov says IBM has patented the technologies and methods used in creating the micro-ring resonators.

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