Record-breaking optical switch study paves way for ultrafast electronics

"This new advancement would also allow the encoding of data on ultrafast laser pulses."
Nergis Firtina
Newly developed device.
Newly developed device.

University of Arizona/Youtube 

A team of international physicists, led by the University of Arizona, was able to switch a light signal optically at attosecond rates in order to achieve hitherto unreachable data transfer speeds: one quintillionth of a second is an attosecond.

"Semiconductor-based transistors are in all of the electronics that we use today," said Mohammed Hassan, assistant professor of physics and optical sciences. "They're part of every industry – from kids' toys to rockets – and are the main building blocks of electronics."

Optical transistors will regulate electric signals

Electronic devices use semiconductors to switch the flow of electricity and data, denoted as either "on" or "off," using electrical signals conveyed via microwaves. According to Hassan, the development of ultrafast optical electronics and the building of "optical transistors" will be made possible by the use of laser light to regulate electrical signals in the future of electronics, says the press statement.

Record-breaking optical switch study paves way for ultrafast electronics
University of Arizona Assistant Professor of Physics and Optical Sciences Mohammed Hassan.

According to Hassan, the fastest semiconductor transistors in the world can operate at a speed of more than 800 gigahertz. Data transfer at that frequency is measured at a scale of picoseconds, or one trillionth of a second.

Since the invention of the semiconductor transistor, computer processing power has steadily increased. However, according to Hassan, one of the main issues with developing faster technology is that the heat produced by continuously adding transistors to a microchip will eventually require more energy to cool than can pass through the chip.

"This new advancement would also allow the encoding of data on ultrafast laser pulses, which would increase the data transfer speed and could be used in long-distance communications from Earth into deep space," Hassan said. "This promises to increase the limiting speed of data processing and information encoding and open a new realm of information technology."

Published in Science Advances on February 22, UArizona physics postdoctoral research associate Dandan Hui and physics graduate student Husain Alqattan also contributed to the article, in addition to researchers from Ohio State University and the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

You can watch the related video below:

Study abstract:

Modern electronics are founded on switching the electrical signal by radiofrequency electromagnetic fields on the nanosecond time scale, limiting the information processing to the gigahertz speed. Recently, optical switches have been demonstrated using terahertz and ultrafast laser pulses to control the electrical signal and enhance the switching speed to the picosecond and a few hundred femtoseconds time scale. Here, we exploit the reflectivity modulation of the fused silica dielectric system in a strong light field to demonstrate the optical switching (ON/OFF) with attosecond time resolution. Moreover, we present the capability of controlling the optical switching signal with complex synthesized fields of ultrashort laser pulses for data binary encoding. This work paves the way for establishing optical switches and light-based electronics with petahertz speeds, several orders of magnitude faster than the current semiconductor-based electronics, opening a new realm in information technology, optical communications, and photonic processor technologies.

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