March 19, 2007, Bath, England--An £820,000 research project could be an important step in bringing the dream of "photonic computers" onto the desktop.
In June Fetah Benabid, of the Department of Physics at Bath, will lead a team of researchers to develop a new technique which would enable them to synthesize waveforms using photons with the same accuracy as electrons are used in electronics. Waveform synthesis is the ability to control very precisely the way that electric fields vary their energy.
The Bath researchers want to allow photonics to create waveforms in a variety of different patterns. To do this, they are using the new photonic crystal fibres which are a great step forward in photonics because, unlike conventional optical fibres, they can channel light without losing much of its energy.
In the research, light of one wavelength will be passed down a photonic crystal fiber which then branches off in a tree-like arrangement of fibres, each with a slightly separate wavelength, creating a broad 'comb-like' spectrum of light from ultra-violet to the middle of the infra-red range.
This broad spectrum would allow close control over the electric field, which is the basis of conveying enormous amounts of information that modern devices like computers need. They are funded by a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
"Harnessing optical waves would represent a huge step, perhaps the definitive one, in establishing the photonics era," said Benabid said. "Since the development of the laser, a major goal in science and technology has been to emulate the breakthroughs of electronics by using optical waves. We feel this project could be a big step in this."
Benabid said that the technology that could be built if his research was successful could, for instance, make lasers that operate at wavelengths that current technology cannot now create, which would be important for surgery.
The continual series of short bursts of light will not only dramatically affect technology - it will also advance physics by giving researchers the chance to look inside the atom.
Although atoms can now be "seen" using devices such as electron microscopes, it has not been possible to examine their fast dynamics. By sending the light in short bursts into an atom, they will be able to work out the movements of electrons, the tiny negatively charged particles that orbit the atom's nucleus.