Science has transferred digital data from light waves to sound for the first time

Dr Birgit Stiller (left) and Moritz Merklein in their laboratory at the University of Sydney Nanoscience Hub. Image: Louise Cooper/University of Sydney

Australian researchers have slowed digital information carried as light waves by transferring the data into sound waves in an integrated circuit, or microchip.

The scientists describe it as like storing lightning inside thunder.

The resulting hybrid chip created could have a huge impact in cloud computing and telecommunication centres, which are overheating because of increasing volumes of data.

The world-first by University of Sydney researchers moves data from the optical to acoustic and back again inside a chip.

The trick is critical for the development of photonic integrated circuits, those microchips which use light instead of electrons to manage data.

These chips are being developed for use in telecommunications, optical fibre networks and cloud computing data centres where electronic devices are susceptible to electromagnetic interference, produce too much heat or use too much energy.

“The information in our chip in acoustic form travels at a velocity five orders of magnitude slower than in the optical domain,” says Dr Birgit Stiller, research fellow at the University of Sydney and supervisor of the project.

“It is like the difference between thunder and lightning.”

This delay allows for the data to be briefly stored and managed inside the chip for processing, retrieval and further transmission as light waves.

Light is an excellent carrier of information and is useful for taking data over long distances between continents through fibre-optic cables.

But this speed advantage can become a nuisance when information is being processed in computers and telecommunication systems. The data needs to be slowed to be useful.

The research, by lead authors Moritz Merklein and Dr Stiller, is published in the journal Nature Communications.

The chip was fabricated at the Australian National University’s Laser Physics Centre, part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Ultrahigh bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS).

“Our system is not limited to a narrow bandwidth,” says Dr Stiller.

“So unlike previous systems this allows us to store and retrieve information at multiple wavelengths simultaneously, vastly increasing the efficiency of the device.”

Fibre optics and photonic information — data delivered by light — have huge advantages over electronic data: bandwidth is increased, data travels at the speed of light and there is no heat produced via electronic resistance.

Photons, unlike electrons, are also immune to interference from electromagnetic radiation.

However, the advantages of light-speed data have their own in-built problem. You need to slow things down on a computer chip so that you can do something useful with the information.

In traditional microchips this is done using electronics.

But as computers and telecommunication systems become bigger and faster, the associated heat is making some systems unmanageable.

The use of photonic chips is one solution to this problem being pursued by large companies such as IBM and Intel.

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