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Could Future Processors Use Lasers? New Research Makes it Possible


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Shown is a schematic (left) and various scanning electron microscope images of nanolasers grown directly on a silicon surface. The achievement could lead to a new class of optoelectronic chips.

Lasers aren't the first thing that come to mind when I think processors, but a new development out of the University of California, Berkeley could change that. Berkeley researchers devised a way to "grow" nanolasers on a piece of silicon--a development they say might open the door to a new generation of processors. Transmitting data as light is seen as one way to speed up processors, by reducing data bottlenecks. This new technology makes up for the fact that silicon is not particularly good at generating light. Previously, scientists had tried to create chips made of silicon and so-called "III-V" (three-five) semiconductor materials, but this approach has problems of its own.

As lead researcher and UC Berkeley grad student Roger Chen said in a press release, "Growing III-V semiconductor films on silicon is like forcing two incongruent puzzle pieces together. It can be done, but the material gets damaged in the process."

Instead, researchers grew nanotechnology structures called "nanopillars" made of indium gallium arsenide on the silicon. These nanopillars were capable of producing near-infrared laser light at room temperature.

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The unique structure of the nanopillars grown by UC Berkeley researchers strongly confines light in a tiny volume to enable subwavelength nanolasers. Images on the left and top right show simulated electric field intensities that describe how light circulates helically inside the nanopillars. On the bottom right is an experimental camera image of laser light from a single nanolaser. The researchers' report will be published in the journal Nature Photonics.

Processors are only one use for this technology; researchers also say it could be used in biochemical sensors.

This isn't the first time that light transmission has been explored as a way to transmit data: Intel's been exploring ways to use light for data transfer as a possible USB 3.0 replacement. And while I'm no expert on nanotechnology, this development sound exciting, and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes of it.

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