Super-fast computers of the future receive funding boost

September 01, 2009

Computers which use light to process large amounts of data faster than ever before are just one of many groundbreaking potential applications of a new £6 million research programme at Queen's University Belfast and Imperial College London, launched today (1 September 2009).

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is funding the two universities to establish a world-leading research programme on the fundamental science of so-called 'nanoplasmonic devices'.

Nanoplasmonic devices' key components are tiny nanoscale metal structures - more then 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair - that guide and direct light.

The structures have been tailor-made to interact with light in an unusual and highly controlled way. This means they could one day be used to build new kinds of super-high-speed 'optical computers' - so named because they would process information using light signals, instead of the electric currents used by today's computers.

At present, the speed with which computers process information is limited by the time it takes for the information to be transferred between electronic components. Currently this information is transferred using nanoscale metallic wires that transmit the signals as an electric current.

To speed up the process, the scientists at Queen's and Imperial hope to develop a way of sending the signals along the same wires in the form of light.

In order to achieve this, they are developing a raft of new metallic devices including tiny nanoscale sources of light, nanoscale 'waveguides' to guide light along a desired route, and nanoscale detectors to pick up the light signals.

Similar approaches may also help in the development of devices for faster internet services.

Professor Anatoly Zayats from the Queen's University's Centre for Nanostructured Media who leads the project said: "This is basic research into how light interacts with matter on the nanoscale. But we will work together with and listen to our industrial partners to direct research in the direction that hopefully will lead to new improved products and services that everyone can buy from the shelf."

Professor Stefan Maier, who leads the research team at Imperial added: "This is an exciting step towards developing computers that use light waves, not electrical current, to handle data and process information. In the future these optical computers will provide us with more processing power and higher speed. This will also open the door to a world of possibilities in scientific fields at the interface with the biosciences, and perhaps even in the world of personal computing."

The project is also supported by INTEL, Seagate, Ericsson, Oxonica, IMEC and the National Physics Laboratory.
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For more information please contact:
Colin Smith, Imperial College London press office
Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6712
Out-of-hours duty press office: +44 (0)7803 886248
Email: cd.smith@imperial.ac.uk

Lisa McElroy, Queen's University Belfast press office
Tel: (028) 9097 5384
Email: lisa.mcelroy@qub.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:

1. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 13,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.

Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackle climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.

2. About Queen's University Belfast

Queen's Centre for Nanostructured Media is based in the School of Mathematics and Physics. More information can be found by visiting http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/SchoolofMathematicsandPhysics/con/

Queen's University Belfast is a member of the Russell Group of the UK's 20 leading research-intensive universities and an international centre of academic excellence rooted at the heart of Northern Ireland. The University has a broad academic profile which covers a wide range of disciplines, from medicine, law and engineering to the humanities, social sciences, science and agriculture. In recent years it has emerged as a major player on the international scene in areas ranging from cancer studies to climate change, from wireless technology to poetry and from pharmaceuticals to sonic arts. Queen's was one of the first UK universities to recognise the importance of bringing research excellence to the marketplace and has created around 50 spin-out companies, employing more than 900 people.

3. About the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training to tackle the challenges of the 21st Century. www.epsrc.ac.uk

Imperial College London

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