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All-optical RAM to clear comms bottleneck

NTT shows off nanowatt optical memory

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Japanese researchers are claiming a breakthrough in all-optical memory, one of the key bottlenecks remaining in the optical communications world.

The high throughput of optical communications systems brings its own problem: any function that can’t be performed in the optical domain demands an opto-electric conversion, creating a bottleneck in the system. This has put a premium on research into optical switching, amplification and signal regeneration.

Memory is a tough nut to crack, however: it demands that a photon’s state be captured, retained and read out – all without converting the signal back to electrons, and in a repeatable and cheap fashion.

The NTT researchers say they have created an ultra-low-power optical RAM using optical cavities that represent a 1 or 0 by either passing or blocking light. The memory cell uses a material based on an indium gallium arsenide strip buried in gallium arsenide.

It acts as a memory because the indium-gallium arsenide strip changes its refractive index when exposed to a laser. The light beam it’s trying to “remember” will be blocked or passed depending on the state of the strip. A second pulse of laser on the “control” strip reverses its state.

While it only retains state for about a microsecond, the researchers say that’s long enough for other system components to use the stored information (and four times the previous record for an all-optical memory). Importantly, they also say the optical cavity approach consumes very low power – according to the Nature Photonics abstract, 30 nW, which is “more than 300 times lower than the previous record”. ®

Bootnote: Proposals for optical memory have existed for a surprisingly long time. For example, this Wikipedia entry describes an approach using a loop of photo-emissive and photo-sensitive materials from the 1950s, as an attempt to solve the problems of memory speed in early computers. ®

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