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.

"This material allows you to make devices where light can switch with light," Sargent said. "That means no longer having to go back and forth between light and electrons. … You are always in the optical mode of the network."

While today's electronic switches can perform ten billion operations per second, future optic switches may be able to relay a dizzying trillion operations per second.

Quantum Gap

In 2000 Kuzyk first theorized the quantum limit—the fundamental physical limits on how strongly a material could control and interact with light.

Kuzyk then measured more than 2,000 specially designed molecules against the quantum limit. "An obvious gap of over a factor of 30 was observed," he said, referring to what has become known as the Kuzyk quantum gap. "Lots of very talented chemists were making all sorts of novel molecules, and they all fell short of the limits."

However, the new material designed by Sargent and his colleagues breaches the gap and falls only a factor of two below the quantum limit. The breakthrough comes closer than ever to achieving what quantum mechanical physics tells us is possible.

"There's been a mismatch between what theorists said was possible and what people actually succeeded in doing experimentally," Sargent said. "We responded to this situation by designing and building our material from the bottom up—in the true spirit of nanotechnology."

Kuzyk says the discovery proves that taking promising molecules and making them interact with each other may lead to materials with much larger switching efficiency.

"In the end, the availability of such materials, assuming they can be made into devices, will result in a mushrooming of the Internet's capacity," Kuzyk said.

Supercharged Internet

Translating the technology into practical applications, however, could take a very long time.

"We have only shown that it's possible to make a material that is essentially as good as physics will allow," Sargent said. "Now we have to make the actual switch and the network that uses these switches."

Sargent says the real challenge in nanotechnology is "engineering matter at the molecular scale, such that it achieves a needed function." Ultimately, he says, nanotechnology could revolutionize the Internet.

"Personally, I don't think we've seen anywhere close to what the Internet can offer us," he said.

For more nanotechnology and technology news, scroll down to bottom.

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