The Future of Computers - Optical Computers

An optical computer (also called a photonic computer) is a device that performs its computation using photons of visible light or infrared (IR) beams, rather than electrons in an electric current. The computers we use today use transistors and semiconductors to control electricity but computers of the future may utilize crystals and metamaterials to control light.

An electric current creates heat in computer systems and as the processing speed increases, so does the amount of electricity required; this extra heat is extremely damaging to the hardware. Photons, however, create substantially less amounts of heat than electrons, on a given size scale, thus the development of more powerful processing systems becomes possible. By applying some of the advantages of visible and/or IR networks at the device and component scale, a computer might someday be developed that can perform operations significantly faster than a conventional electronic computer.

Coherent light beams, unlike electric currents in metal conductors, pass through each other without interfering; electrons repel each other, while photons do not. For this reason, signals over copper wires degrade rapidly while fiber optic cables do not have this problem. Several laser beams can be transmitted in such a way that their paths intersect, with little or no interference among them - even when they are confined essentially to two dimensions.

Electro-Optical Hybrid computers

Most research projects focus on replacing current computer components with optical equivalents, resulting in an optical digital computer system processing binary data. This approach appears to offer the best short-term prospects for commercial optical computing, since optical components could be integrated into traditional computers to produce an optical/electronic hybrid. However, optoelectronic devices lose about 30% of their energy converting electrons into photons and back and this switching process slows down transmission of messages.

Pure Optical Computers

All-optical computers eliminate the need for switching. These computers will use multiple frequencies to send information throughout computer as light waves and packets thus not having any electron based systems and needing no conversation from electrical to optical, greatly increasing the speed.


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