Going All-Optical

Summer 2016

Illustration of computer

One one-millionth of a second may sound rather brief to most of us, but to Jacob Khurgin, professor of electrical and computer engineering, it is eternity.

“Ten to the minus-sixth seconds,” he muses, “is way too slow.”

Khurgin believes that there could be a speedier way to process information than our computers are able to perform today. He and co-researchers at the National Taiwan University and the University of Massachusetts Boston theorize that an interface known as an all-optical switch that incorporates metallic nanoparticles could function 10,000 times faster than our plodding Neanderthal devices. Their paper was published in December in Scientific Reports, a Nature publication.

If you’re keeping score, that would mean a switching speed of 1 ten-billionth of a second—rather than a mere one-millionth—inside the data centers that are the heart of our computer networks.

“We already have long-range fiber-optic cables coming into our homes,” says Khurgin, who shares a corner office in Barton Hall with his 3-year-old Gordon Setter dog, Professor Pinot Noir. “It would be nice to do all of our information processing optically. With an all-optical switch, you wouldn’t have to transfer optical information into electronic information, consuming energy and real estate.”

The challenge of optoelectronics, Khurgin explains, is to produce switches that are both powerful and fast, without producing heat and needing to be cooled down. The inclusion of a few atoms of metal impregnated into the optical interface seems to make the difference and could, as the team’s paper states, “lead to low-power, ultrafast, all-optical devices.”

Khurgin is no stranger to moving quickly. A native of Saint Petersburg, he left the Soviet Union through a window of détente that opened only for a femtosecond, just before the 1980 Olympic Games were staged in Moscow.

“Every time we take a breath, eternity passes down there at the nanotime scale,” he says. “Something is being born, something lives all its life, meets its friends and interacts, and leaves a memory. Sometimes I imagine myself as a little electron. It is a deeply philosophical way to think about the meaning of time.”