First Ever Nano-photonic Memory Chips Created in the Lab
Electronics, especially high-density integrated circuits are hitting a wall in terms of speed and performance. Although every time we think we’ve finally hit that wall so far there has been a new development that provides a little breathing space. Nonetheless, the fact is that eventually we will reach the end of what we can do with the electron as a computing method. There are however a number of different computing methods that look to take over the performance crown when electronics can do no more. Quantum and DNA computers are two examples, although don’t hold your breath for these technologies as everyday computing replacements. What is a possible replacement for the electronics of today is something called photonic computing. This uses the photon, a particle of light, rather than the electron. For one thing, photons are much faster than electrons. After all, photons move at the speed of light in a vacuum, because they are light.
Whether photonic computing will eventually supplant semiconductor electronics is an open question. There are many things electronics currently do for which there is no photonic equivalent. To match the logic functions of electronics with photonic technology each of these functions need to be replicated using photons. If researchers can pull of these multiple challenges we could have computing devices as much as 100 times faster than the best computers we use today.
One group of scientists may have cracked one of these problems: non-volatile photonic storage. In other words, a photonic equivalent of something like flash memory. Until now photonic components that stored information for computing were volatile. If the power went, so did the data. Using the same materials that re-writable DVDs and CDs use at a nanoscale level they were able to store data at a relatively high density and at high speed within a photonic chip. They were able to store 8 bits of data at a single location, which is already a significant improvement of binary electronics.
The team claims that existing manufacturing technologies such as photolithography can be adapted to manufacture such photonic components and that even the prototype matches existing electronics in terms of speed and power needs. However, it is still physically far too large to be a viable alternative to flash memory.
Still, photonics still looks to be the most likely successor to present day computing and this is one important step towards that goal.