The rapid and on-going development of micro-miniature optical electronic devices is helping to usher in a new era of photonic computers and light-based memories
that promise super-fast processor speeds and ultra-secure
communications. However, as these components are shrunk ever further, fundamental limits to their dimensions are dictated by the wavelength of light itself. Now researchers at ETH Zurich claim to have overcome this limitation by creating both the world's smallest optical switch using a single atom,
and accompanying circuitry that appears to break the rules by being
smaller than the wavelength of the light that passes through it.
For years now, fiber optics has been synonymous with super-speed communications and data transfer, but now NASA is working to develop the next generation of high-speed modems using an emerging technology called integrated photonics. The agency's first integrated photonics modem is set to be deployed aboard the International Space Station in 2020. The palm-sized device makes use of optics-based functions like lasers, switches and wires that are all integrated on a microchip much like those in our cell phones.
Space-based laser communications are moving out of the testing phase and into orbit as the first satellite in the European DAta Relay System (EDRS), or SpaceDataHighway, prepares for launch at the end of January. Likened to having a fiber optic cable in space, the 1.8 Gigabit per second system is a joint public–private partnership between Airbus Defence and Space and ESA that will act as a relay system between ground stations, satellites, and aircraft.
We generally picture lasers as being encased within hard housings, much like most other electronics. Thanks to research being conducted at Kent State University and Japan's Kyoto Institute of Technology, however, we could soon see sensors or other devices that incorporate stretchable laser-emitting rubber.
With over 100 million cargo containers in transit each year, screening them for illicit nuclear material is a major problem. To keep commerce flowing while maintaining an eye on nuclear terrorism and smuggling, a team of scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is developing a laser-based X-ray machine that can image a uranium disk the size of a stack of three US nickels hidden between three-inch (7.6 cm) steel panels.
Welding pipes in cramped, potentially dangerous areas is an expensive and time-consuming exercise. OC Robotics and TWI Ltd have been working on a potential solution in the form of an articulated robotic snake that navigates and welds pipes from the inside using high-powered industrial lasers.
Researchers from Tsukuba University in Japan have created holograms that respond to human touch. Involving femtosecond lasers, which can stimulate physical matter to emit light in 3D form, the research could eventually lead to the creation of holograms that humans are able to interact with.
According to a study conducted by the UK's Transport Research Laboratory, 79 percent of bicycle-vs-car accidents occurred when drivers maneuvered into the path of cyclists travelling at speed. In order to help lower that number, University of Brighton product design student Emily Brooke created the Blaze Laserlight as a final-year project. The bicycle headlight is designed to let motorists know that a bike is approaching, by laser-projecting an image of a bicycle onto the road approximately six meters (20 ft) in front of the rider. Four years and one successful Kickstarter campaign later, the Laserlight is now available to buyers in North America. We recently had a chance to try it out for ourselves.
In a world where lasers are sci-fi's weapon of choice for melting away an enemy spaceship (sometimes even translating to the real world), researchers at the University of Washington have swum against the current and produced the first laser capable of cooling liquids. The technology could be especially useful for slowing down single cells and allow scientists to study biological processes as they happen.