Scientists have been working to create processors that operate on light instead of electric currents for many years. Finding an appropriate nonlinear process to perform the optical equivalent of a transistor’s switching has proven to be one of the biggest challenges. But now, a joint research effort thinks it may have the solution: a specially created gel that enables weak laser beams to navigate themselves and communicate with other beams at a considerable distance.
Since it enables transistors to function as switches, transmitting an electrical current when triggered by a much smaller (electrical) signal, nonlinearity is a key component of digital computing. However, photons do not typically interact with one another as electrons do. Researchers have been working on materials that act as filters between laser beams to circumvent this issue when creating an all-optical computer that stores, transmits, and analyzes data in photons.
In the most recent study, researchers used laser beams to illuminate a hydrogel, a network of polymers packed with water and light-sensitive molecules. To shrink and increase the polymer network’s density, a chemical reaction that would expel water from the substance was intended to be optically induced. As a result, the refractive index would be greater inside the beam’s path and lower outside of it, forming a waveguide that would focus the beam and increase its intensity.
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