Device could make for faster Internet, better communications

September 04, 2001

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Whether you're waiting for a computer to download the latest movie trailer, or just holding for a long-distance phone call to connect, you may one day get faster service as the result of a new device invented by Ohio State University engineers.

The device, called an optical interconnect, transfers data from one fiber optic cable to another, using an array of microscopic mirrors on a silicon chip. Such data transfer is growing more and more crucial as the Internet and other forms of communication clog busy networks around the world.

Today, data can't switch between cables without passing through slow and cumbersome electronics -- traditional wires that rely on electrons to carry information, not pulses of light, as optical fibers do.

"Compared to optics, electrons are slower than death on crutches," said Betty Lise Anderson, associate professor of electrical engineering at Ohio State. "So the bottleneck at these connection points is fierce."

The answer: a device covered with tiny mirrors that will catch individual beams of light from fiber optic cable, and reflect them off to their destination -- bypassing the traditional electronics that slow things down.

Anderson and Stuart A. Collins, Jr., professor emeritus at Ohio State's ElectroScience Laboratory, recently received a patent for their optical interconnect, and another patent on a related technology is pending.

"Imagine you wanted to send a message from Syracuse to Cincinnati," Collins said. "Right now, that message could travel by fiber optic cable, but it would have to pass through a series of electronic hubs in between. It would have to be converted from light into electrons, and back into light again. What we'd like to do is go directly from light to light, with the help of mirrors, prisms and lenses."

While a handful of commercial companies have already developed their own such devices, Anderson and Collins expect Ohio State's optical interconnect will be superior. They've designed it to be more compact, versatile, and durable.

The new design involves a silicon computer chip covered with hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrors, each only a few tens of millionths of a meter across. The mirrors flip up and down to reflect the light signals along the desired route.

Other optical interconnects currently under development use a similar concept, Anderson said.

What makes Ohio State's design different is that one of the mirrors is slightly askew -- on purpose. Beams of light that hit this offset mirror are bumped off in a slightly different direction. By controlling how many times a beam of light bounces off the mirrors -- and off the offset mirror in particular -- researchers can guide a beam in virtually any direction.

The mirrors in other optical interconnects can only point light beams in one direction, Anderson said. "If one of those mirrors breaks, you can never make that connection again. With our scheme, if a mirror fails, we wouldn't care, because other mirrors could take its place. We would have many different ways of getting the same output."

The newly formed Technology Commercialization Company, a subsidiary of the Science and Technology Campus Corp. -- Ohio State's research park development affiliate -- has created a company to develop and commercialize this technology. Anderson and Collins are scientific consultants for the new company, which is named Opticonnect, Inc.

The engineers said a working model of the optical interconnect could be years away, depending on the development of reliable techniques to fabricate the mirrors, and partnership with industry to commercialize the device.
Betty Lise Anderson, 614-292-1323;
Stuart A. Collins, Jr., 614-247-7986;
Written by Pam Frost Gorder, 614-292-9475;

Ohio State University

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