Stretching for thousands of miles beneath oceans, optical fibers now connect every continent except for Antarctica. With less data loss and higher bandwidth, optical-fiber technology allows information to zip around the world, bringing pictures, video, and other data from every corner of the globe to your computer in a split second. But although optical fibers are increasingly replacing copper wires, carrying information via photons instead of electrons, today's computer technology still relies on electronic chips.

Caltech engineers have developed a new way to 
isolate light on a photonic chip, allowing light to 
travel in only one direction. This finding can lead 
to the next generation of computer-chip technology: 
photonic chips that allow for faster computers 
and less data loss. (Credit: Caltech/Liang Feng)

Now, researchers led by engineers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) are paving the way for the next generation of computer-chip technology: photonic chips. With integrated circuits that use light instead of electricity, photonic chips will allow for faster computers and less data loss when connected to the global fiber-optic network. 


"We want to take everything on an electronic chip and reproduce it on a photonic chip," says Liang Feng, a postdoctoral scholar in electrical engineering and the lead author on a paper to be published in the August 5 issue of the journal Science. Feng is part of Caltech's nanofabrication group, led by Axel Scherer, Bernard A. Neches Professor of Electrical Engineering, Applied Physics, and Physics, and co-director of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute at Caltech. 

In that paper, the researchers describe a new technique to isolate light signals on a silicon chip, solving a longstanding problem in engineering photonic chips. 

An isolated light signal can only travel in one direction. If light weren't isolated, signals sent and received between different components on a photonic circuit could interfere with one another, causing the chip to become unstable. In an electrical circuit, a device called a diode isolates electrical signals by allowing current to travel in one direction but not the other. The goal, then, is to create the photonic analog of a diode, a device called an optical isolator. "This is something scientists have been pursuing for 20 years," Feng says. 

Normally, a light beam has exactly the same properties when it moves forward as when it's reflected backward. "If you can see me, then I can see you," he says. In order to isolate light, its properties need to somehow change when going in the opposite direction. An optical isolator can then block light that has these changed properties, which allows light signals to travel only in one direction between devices on a chip. 

"We want to build something where you can see me, but I can't see you," Feng explains. "That means there's no signal from your side to me. The device on my side is isolated; it won't be affected by my surroundings, so the functionality of my device will be stable." 

To isolate light, Feng and his colleagues designed a new type of optical waveguide, a 0.8-micron-wide silicon device that channels light. The waveguide allows light to go in one direction but changes the mode of the light when it travels in the opposite direction. 

A light wave's mode corresponds to the pattern of the electromagnetic field lines that make up the wave. In the researchers' new waveguide, the light travels in a symmetric mode in one direction, but changes to an asymmetric mode in the other. Because different light modes can't interact with one another, the two beams of light thus pass through each other.


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