Researchers shed light on potential nanotech networks

Canadian researchers have discovered nanotechnology that can be used to develop a network based on light that’s 100 times faster than today’s equipment, but acknowledged there’s still much work to be done before it’s useful to the private sector.

In a study published Thursday in Nano Letters,

Professor Ted Sargent and his colleagues discussed the ability of a laser to direct another one with the control needed for future fibre-optic networks.

A professor at University of Toronto’s department of electrical and computer engineering, Sargent said his work aims to solve the Internet’s electronic bottleneck problem. At the moment, information is sent quickly over fibre optics using light, but a piece of information crossing the Internet then makes a “”number of bounces,”” typically 15 routing operations, he explained.

This implies Internet signals are forced to change from optical form to electronic form 15 times, which inevitably slows down traffic, he said.

Sargent said the recent research, the result of collaboration between UofT and Carleton University in Ottawa, is trying to enable light to control light, removing electronics from the equation whenever possible.

As a result, “”you could have a direct optical connection from here to Vancouver or from here to Los Angeles, depending on who you wanted to communicate with, and it could go seamlessly in optical form.””

These findings will also allow researchers “”to make devices that can perform a trillion operations rather than a billion operations per second,”” Sargent said.

Until now, engineering researchers have been unsuccessful in acting on scientific predictions that light can control light, a failure known as the Kuzyk quantum gap after Mark Kuzyk, a Washington State University physics professor who first theorized in 2000 the fundamental physical limits on the non-linear properties of molecular materials.

To disprove the Kuzyk quantum gap, researchers designed a material combining nanometre-sized spherical particles called buckyballs (molecules of carbon atoms that look like soccer balls) and polymer. This combination created a clear, smooth film that allowed light particles to pick up one another’s patterns and could therefore process data carried at telecommunications wavelengths.

It’s hard to predict how long it will take for this milestone in nanotechnology, the result of two years’ work, to translate to practical applications in the commercial sector, Sargent said.

“”There’s at least maybe two or three more things that you need to do in order to make an all-optical network,”” explained Sargent. The first is to turn the researchers’ polymer-buckyball material into switches, and the other is to build a network using these switches.

Although Sargent cannot speculate on the costs of transferring this research outside of the lab, he said the materials and the processes his research team developed are inexpensive.

One member of the nanotechnology industry who’s been following Sargent’s work described using photons instead of electrons to route data as a “”massive, up-and-coming area”” in which hundreds of research teams in academia, government labs and industry are working.

Making a mainstream industrial product in large production runs, for instance, requires many steps such as defining a product, said Neil Gordon, Montreal-based president of the Canadian Nanobusiness Alliance.

“”The key is to find an early-stage niche opportunity that is going to be adopted by some high-end user, or let’s say high-risk user, like the military or NASA. And they will pay a lot of money to develop a first-of-a-kind technology,”” Gordon explained.

“”And then once that’s developed and prototyped and, let’s say, implemented in some small volumes, then there is a natural road map to try to get that into more larger scale applications”” like optical networking, PCs, medical devices or special networks for submarines.

Still another challenge is finding a user who wants to define certain specifications using the technology, which is “”almost as difficult to do as the research itself,””said Gordon.

Despite efforts by Sargent and his research team and predictions their discovery will advance nanotechnolgy, Gordon offered another caveat: “”Just because something works tremendously in the lab doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be adopted in business.””

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