We’ve constructed a world out of fiber optic cable and silicon, but Arizona State University researchers think their new material can do better. They have synthesized a new kind of single-crystal nanowire from a compound of erbium–a material generally used to dope fiber optic cables to amplify their signals–and they claim it could increase the speed of the Internet, spawn a new generation of computers, and improve photovoltaic solar cells, sensor technologies, and solid-state lighting.
That’s a tall order, but the ASU team says their erbium material is up to it. In fact, erbium is already augmenting these things. Erbium atoms are generally used to dope fiber optic cable, boosting its optical properties and amplifying signals. But because of the particular properties of erbium, cramming enough atoms onto a cable to make it an effective amplifier requires a fairly long cable.
So how do you cram more erbium atoms into a cable? You make the cable itself out of erbium. That’s easier said than done, and the breakthrough here is the erbium compound that can be produced in high quality, single-crystal form. Using the compound, the researchers can create objects with 1,000 times more erbium atoms in them than they could when they were simply doping other materials with erbium. And while that doesn’t translate directly into cables or silicon chips that are 1,000-times faster, it does translate into remarkable improvements in speed and efficiency, the researchers say.
It also enables erbium atoms to be packed into small architectures where they couldn’t be packed in significant numbers previously. That means they can be integrated into silicon chips to speed the performance of computers and other devices even as the fiber optic cables that feed those devices data are also improved by the erbium compound. And all of that could be powered with vastly more efficient PV solar cells made of the erbium compound.
The researchers are testing the material for a range of applications, including those mentioned above. There’s no word yet as to when it might be commercially available. But we imagine it will be fast.