Physicists at Imperial College London have discovered a new form of light; its ability to interact with single electrons in what are known as topological insulators.
The finding is thought to have applications for computer circuitry, potentially creating even more microscopic, fast and reliable electronic circuits.
Researchers studying the properties of topological insulators -super-thin materials that can conduct electricity regardless of minute imperfections or deformations in the shape of the material- found that light can be made to interact with a single electron on the surface of a topological insulator. This phenomenon effectively ties together the light particle (photon) and electron such that the electron adopts properties of the photon and the photon takes on properties of the electron. In terms of practical implications, this means that the light particle can be made to follow a path along a substrate such as a circuit board much like an electron does.
“The results of this research will have a huge impact on the way we conceive light,” says Dr. Vincenzo Giannini, professor of physics at Imperial College London and co-author of the study. “Topological insulators were only discovered in the last decade, but are already providing us with new phenomena to study and new ways to explore important concepts in physics.”
The new discovery may help pave the way for quantum computing to become a reality, as well as allow for further reduction in the already minuscule size of computer chips.
The death of Moore’s Law of computing has been forecasted many times over the past half-century, but it has been only recently that tech giants and chip makers have assented to the fact that the pace of advances in chip technology has now slowed considerably, putting pressure on researchers to come up with a brand new approach to computing.
In 1965, co-founder of chip giant Intel, Gordon Moore, first observed and proclaimed the computer industry truism -since known as Moore’s Law- that the number of components on an integrated circuit would double every year, essentially shrinking machine size while creating an annual doubling of computing power.
The principle more-or-less held for decades, as semi-conductors went from the warehouse-sized antiquities of the 1950s and 60s to the 4004 microprocessor created by Intel in 1971, containing at the time a record number 2,300 transistors, to today’s computer chips that have literally billions of transistors. Yet, researchers now find themselves bumping up against the physical limitations of matter.
Hence the promise of quantum computing and a radical shift in the idea of how to build a computer. Companies such as D-Wave based in Burnaby, BC, are already launching designs -the D-Wave 2X, for example- that are moving computing away from semiconductor technology and towards quantum computing.
The sea change has been observed by even the international groupings of chip technology giants, the Semiconductor Industry Associations, who together have decided to create a new forecasting system for computing technology called the International Roadmap for Devices and Systems, which will look at technologies that go beyond that of the semiconductor.
“The end of Moore’s Law is what led to this,” says Thomas M. Conte, computer scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-chairman of the effort to create the new Roadmap. “Just relying on the semiconductor industry is no longer enough. We have to shift and punch through some walls and break through some barriers.”
The new study is published in the journal Nature Communications.