Researchers demonstrate new photonic memory that keeps working even when the power is off

Computing companies searching for more speed have started to use light to transport data inside computers instead of electricity. Now researchers have unveiled a promising scheme for using light to store information on a chip as well—even when the power is off.

Using light instead of electricity to move information between a computer’s memory and its processor could lead to much faster and more energy-efficient computers (see “Intel’s Laser Chips Could Make Data Centers Run Better”). But right now it is necessary to convert the optical signals to electrical ones and store the data electronically, which is relatively slow compared with the speed of today’s processors. The new “all-photonic” memory, which takes advantage of the same materials used in rewritable CDs and DVDs, is a step toward systems that achieve more efficient data transfer and storage, according to the technology’s inventors.

Photonic memory has been demonstrated on a chip before, but it was short-lived and it required a constant supply of light to work. This is the first “on-chip” optical memory that is nonvolatile, meaning that it does not require a constant supply of energy, and thus can provide long-term storage the way a hard drive can. The basis of the technology is a so-called phase-change material. Light pulses can be used to switch the material between two distinct states—one in which the atoms are ordered, or crystalline, and one in which they are disordered, or amorphous. The researchers exploited this phenomenon to write and read information.Read more


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