Invisibility materials can speed up web by ten per cent

A new kind of light-warping material could boost the speed of the internet at least ten fold by, strangely enough, slowing bits of it down.

The possibility is raised by the development by a Californian team of two artificial composite materials, called metamaterials, which attracted a huge amount of publicity for the way they could pave the way to invisibility cloaks.

But a more direct application of these materials could be in fiber optic networks where applying the brakes to light could enable engineers to route information much more efficiently and quickly than conventional electronics.

And these metamaterials could also mark an advance in quantum computing, named after the strange quantum properties of matter at the atomic level, that could enhance the power of computers millions of times beyond anything available today.

Fiber optic communications have vast capacities because each frequency of light sent bouncing down an optical fiber can carry a separate channel of information.

At major interconnection points, where billions of parcels of information from myriad phone calls arrive simultaneously, these metamaterials could be used to slow, divert and allow through information, working in the same way as traffic congestion calming schemes do on motorways, when a reduction in the speed limit can lead to a swifter overall flow of traffic.

The ability to slow the light to separate these channels could be a tremendous force for telecommunications because conventional electronics that do this cap the possible speed of the fiber optic cable, comments Dr Chris Stevens from the department of engineering sciences at the University of Oxford.

While light can operate at a frequency of around one terahertz, one million million cycles per second, conventional electronics struggle to cope with more than a few gigahertz, that is a few thousand million cycles per second.

Using metamaterials that can cope with these higher frequenices could regulate the flow of information through the web to ensure that too much information does not arrive simultaneously. giving the web a higher information capacity.

They could also store light, which would enable much higher amounts to be handled than electronic chips, and without the efficiency draining steps of having to convert information stored on particles of light (photons) to that stored with electricity (electrons).

Thus these metamaterials represent a revolution in broadband computing and memory storage.

"In general, metamaterials can be designed for many interesting applications beyond this work, such as slow light in optical communications", the Telegraph is told by Prof Xiang Zhang, the University of California researcher who announces two new metamaterials to manipulate light, one today in the journal Nature and a second in tomorrow's issue of Science.

However, he stresses that " our work at this point is concentrated on manipulating light beams at a small scale and bending them at our desire which enables technologies for imaging at molecular scale and building even smaller computer circuits."

Prof Ortwin Hess of the University of Surrey has done theoretical work to show how light can be slowed down "in a controlled way" so that a beam of sunlight can travel at a leisurely stroll, be brought close to a standstill, and thus even stored for later use in the form of a rainbow in a metamaterial.

"I am excited about the realization of the material by the Berkeley team since this is precisely the kind of material with very much the right properties that we have assumed in our earlier work."

His studies predict an increase in operating capacity of 1,000 per cent over the use of conventional electronics by exploiting light's broad spectrum to lay down lots of different information simultaneously in the first "optical capacitor."

This ability to store light will conceivably provide a powerful new tool to control optical information, even harness the quantum properties of atoms, and so exploit the possibilities of quantum computers that, in theory, will be able solve problems millions of times faster than current machines.

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