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Plasmonics: A new hope for the post-silicon era

For some time now, people have been wondering what will be the successor to silicon-based processor technology. Once Moore's Law inevitably hits the wall — as the limits of how many transistors can be packed onto a silicon wafer is reached — what new technologies will continue to march forward to ever-more powerful computers?

One possible answer comes in the form of an emerging science called plasmonics, reports Science News.

Plasmonics, studied by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and others, is a newly understood technique of compressing light into conduits just a few nanometers wide. Tiny plasmonic lasers could do the work that transistors do today. Such "plasers" are smaller than silicon-based transistors, much more computing power can be packed into a smaller surface.

Plasmonics exploits a strange nano-level phenomenon known as the surface plasmon wave, caused when light hits a very small scrap of metal. The "light can set off a wave in the free electrons hanging out on the metal’s surface. This wave carries the light along like a surfer riding on an electron sea," the publication reports.

All the usual disclaimers apply when talking about far-term technology: The devil remains buried in the details. Converting light into plasma waves hasn't been sussed out yet, and how to encode data on a wave remains a challenge as well. Also, plasma waves don't travel very far before dying out.

Like quantum computing — that other great promise for post-silicon processing — plasmonic computers remain decades away. Still worth watching, though.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Nov 02, 2009 at 9:39 AM


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