Fiber-optic cable has exponentially increased the speed at which we can transfer data over the decades, but as we stream more and more services through a single fiber cable, we can expect all that information to start bottlenecking at some point. To keep that from happening, a researcher at Tel Aviv University has created a tiny plastic gateway that will direct traffic through our fiber networks and, he claims, make the Web run hundreds of times faster.
Many households pipe phone lines, television, and Internet through a single fiber cable, with the latter two media sucking more and more bandwidth all the time. Currently, most systems rely on semiconductor filters that help organize the incoming information in a fiber-optic cable.But semiconductors take a long time to manufacture and as such usually come at a price. The Tel Aviv researchers think a plastic filter is far more economical, and now they think they've invented a polymer photonic switching device that will replace semiconductors within the next decade. The nano-based filter works by carving nanometer-sized grooves into the plastic switch into which the light from the cable flows. The many grooves modulate the light, filtering the data and encoding it into usable information.
Unlike finicky semiconductor-based switches, these plastic filters can be manufactured nearly anywhere; almost any laboratory can make them by pouring a special liquid plastic solution into a special mold and letting it cure for a few minutes. That's in stark contrast to semiconductors, which must be grown on crystals in sterile lab environments and which are then quite fragile and not very flexible.
The hard part will be getting the communications industry to adopt a plastic switch over the semiconductors upon which they've relied for years. But Dr. Koby Scheuer, the lead researcher on the program, is optimistic that it will happen, noting that his polymeric device can do all the things semiconductors can do "at a speed, quality and cost that the semiconductor industry can't even imagine."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.