Nanotechnology Material May Supercharge Internet

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
August 19, 2004

Scientists have discovered a nanotechnology that could be used to make the Internet a hundred times faster than it is today.

Canadian researchers have devised a new polymer material by manipulating buckyballs (carbon atoms that look like soccer balls). The technology could be used to create optical (light based) switches to replace electronic network switches. It could lead to an Internet based entirely on light.

Nanotechnology is the art of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale.

"Our discovery is a showcase for what nanotechnology is really about … creating custom materials from the molecule up," said Ted Sargent, a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Toronto.

Until now scientists have been unsuccessful in realizing theoreticians' predictions of the power of light to control light. The failure of real materials to live up to their theoretical potential has become known as the "Kuzyk quantum gap."

Mark Kuzyk is the Washington State University physics professor who first identified this gap between materials' theoretical and actual performance. Speaking of the new discovery, he said, "This team has succeeded where all other researchers have failed."

The latest technology was described in the August 11 issue of the scientific journal Nano Letters.

Electronics Bottleneck

Fiber-optic networks have dramatically accelerated the transmission of data on the Internet. But transmitting information from one high-speed network to another involves passing through slower, electronic switches and routers.

"Electronics do not afford the same speed of information conveyance that optics [light] do, and that gives rise to what has become referred to as the electronics bottleneck on the Internet," Sargent said.

The new technology aims to solve that problem.

The material designed by the researchers creates a clear smooth film that allows photons (light particles) to pick up one another's patterns. This enables data to be carried at telecommunications wavelengths—the infrared colors of light used in fiber-optic cables.

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