Physicists Just Made Electronics That Switch On and Off at the Speed of Light

The innovation was achieved by manipulating electrons with light waves produced by an ultrafast laser.
Loukia Papadopoulos

In terms of electronics and computing, speed is of the essence when conducting electricity. That's why we were excited to read that researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany were able to transport electrons at sub-femtosecond speeds, less than one quadrillionth of a second.


The future of electronics

This is a big increase compared to the speeds we currently can switch electrons on and off. Those speeds range in the picoseconds, 10-15 seconds, around 1,000 times slower than a femtosecond.

“This may well be the distant future of electronics”, said Alfred Leitenstorfer, Professor of Ultrafast Phenomena and Photonics at the University of Konstanz (Germany) and co-author of the study. “Our experiments with single-cycle light pulses have taken us well into the attosecond range of electron transport.”

Although Leitenstorfer emphasized that the technology may take decades to implement, he and his team believe that the "future of electronics lies in integrated plasmonic and optoelectronic devices that operate in the single-electron regime at optical – rather than a microwave – frequencies." They achieved this result by manipulating electrons with light waves produced by an ultrafast laser.

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Building a setup

In order to do this, the researchers had to first build a precise set up at the Centre for Applied Photonics in Konstanz. This involved using nanoscale gold antennas in a bowtie shape and an ultrafast laser capable of emitting one hundred million single-cycle light pulses per second.

Through these innovations, the team was able to contain the electric field of the pulse down into a gap measuring just six nanometres wide. Once this was done, the researchers could switch electric currents at well under a femtosecond.

Now, these impressively fast oscillations of light that help electrons speed up could one day provide new options for pushing the limits on electronics. This could prove very beneficial to our future electronic devices, particularly computers.

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