New Optical Switch up to 1000x Faster Than Transistors

“Optical accelerator” devices could one day soon turbocharge tailored applications

2 min read
The Hybrid Photonics Labs at Skoltech where the new optical transistor was created.

The Hybrid Photonics Labs at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, where the new optical switch was created.


A new optical switch is, at 1 trillion operations per second, between 100 and 1,000 times faster than today's leading commercial electronic transistors, research that may one day help lead to a new generation of computers based on light instead of electricity, say scientists in Russia and at IBM.

Computers typically represent data as ones and zeroes by switching transistors between one electric state and the other. Optical computers that replace conventional transistors with optical switches could theoretically operate more quickly than regular computers, as photons travel at the speed of light, while electrons, typically, don’t.

The new device relies on a 35-nanometer-wide organic semiconductor polymer film sandwiched between two highly reflective mirrors. The result is a microscopic cavity designed to keep incoming light trapped inside for as long as possible to help it couple with the cavity's material.

Two lasers help operate the device—a bright pump laser and a very weak seed laser. When the pump laser shines on the microcavity, its photons can couple strongly with excitons (electrons bound to their positively charged counterparts, holes) within the cavity's material. This can give rise to short-lived quasiparticles known as exciton-polaritons.

The cluster of exciton-polaritons can form so-called Bose-Einstein condensates, collections of particles that each behave like a single atom. The light from the seed beam could switch this condensate between two measurable states that serve as zero and one.

The new device not only can operate extraordinarily quickly, but it can switch using as little as one photon of input on average. In contrast, transistors generally needs dozens of times more energy to switch, while those that switch using single electrons are much slower.

"The most surprising finding was that we could trigger the optical switch with the smallest amount of light, a single photon," says study senior author Pavlos Lagoudakis, a physicist at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow.

Electronic transistors that are comparably switchable with just single electrons usually require bulky cooling equipment, which in turn consumes power and factors into their operating costs. In contrast, the new optical switch works at room temperature.

Lagoudakis cautions that all-optical computing likely lies far in the future. "It took 40 years for the first electronic transistor to enter a personal computer and the investment of many governments and companies and thousands of researchers and engineers," he says. "It is often misunderstood how long before a discovery in fundamental physics research takes to enter the market."

Still, Lagoudakis suggests their research could lead to "optical accelerators" one day relatively soon—optical computing devices that can perform specialized operations much faster than classical electronic computers. "These could be used to remove computational bottlenecks in supercomputers that usually rely on massive parallel processing," he notes.

Besides optical accelerators and all-optical computing, Lagoudakis says the super-sensitivity of the new optical switch to light suggests it could serve as a light detector that could find use in lidar scanners, such as those finding use in drones and autonomous vehicles.

The scientists detailed their findings in a recent issue of the journal Nature.

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Can This DIY Rocket Program Send an Astronaut to Space?

Copenhagen Suborbitals is crowdfunding its crewed rocket

15 min read
Five people stand in front of two tall rockets. Some of the people are wearing space suits and holding helmets, others are holding welding equipment.

Copenhagen Suborbitals volunteers are building a crewed rocket on nights and weekends. The team includes [from left] Mads Stenfatt, Martin Hedegaard Petersen, Jørgen Skyt, Carsten Olsen, and Anna Olsen.

Mads Stenfatt

It was one of the prettiest sights I have ever seen: our homemade rocket floating down from the sky, slowed by a white-and-orange parachute that I had worked on during many nights at the dining room table. The 6.7-meter-tall Nexø II rocket was powered by a bipropellant engine designed and constructed by the Copenhagen Suborbitals team. The engine mixed ethanol and liquid oxygen together to produce a thrust of 5 kilonewtons, and the rocket soared to a height of 6,500 meters. Even more important, it came back down in one piece.

That successful mission in August 2018 was a huge step toward our goal of sending an amateur astronaut to the edge of space aboard one of our DIY rockets. We're now building the Spica rocket to fulfill that mission, and we hope to launch a crewed rocket about 10 years from now.

Copenhagen Suborbitals is the world's only crowdsourced crewed spaceflight program, funded to the tune of almost US $100,000 per year by hundreds of generous donors around the world. Our project is staffed by a motley crew of volunteers who have a wide variety of day jobs. We have plenty of engineers, as well as people like me, a pricing manager with a skydiving hobby. I'm also one of three candidates for the astronaut position.

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