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Wednesday, 7 March, 2001, 19:06 GMT
'Smaller, faster' computers possible
Computer circuit
Conventional circuits switch electricity, not light
Scientists in Britain have made a technological advance that could lead to faster, smaller computers.

Chips are getting smaller and more powerful every year, but ultimately there will come a point where the complexity of the contacts and the wire doesn't scale

Kevin Homewood
They have forced silicon to emit light, a discovery that may make it possible to use light rather than electricity to carry signals around a chip.

Light beams can be made much smaller than the wires used in current chips, so circuits utilising light could be smaller and more powerful. Such devices would also allow internet traffic to continue to accelerate by speeding up the equipment which handles switching and routing.

The approach was developed by a team at the University of Surrey, UK, led by Professor Kevin Homewood.

Heat not light

"Chips are getting smaller and more powerful every year, but ultimately, and probably in the next few years, there will come a point where the complexity of the contacts and the wire doesn't scale, but stays the same," he said.

He believes his team has come up with a solution - they have used current technology to make silicon emit light.

"Silicon is meant to give out heat, not light," he said. "We have engineered it and built walls around the part that conducts heat to allow light to go through instead.

"The technique squeezed light out of silicon by creating extra silicon atoms to provide areas that can emit light in the material."

'Smaller, faster'

Professor Homewood said it should mean computer chips will continue to get "smaller and faster".

"It will enable continued developments in telecommunications, and be particularly useful for the internet," he added.

According to the Surrey team, making light-emitting silicon can be done with current technology, so chip manufacturers would only need minimal modifications to their billion-dollar factories.

The new approach, reported in the journal Nature, works best at room temperature, making it ideal for use in personal computers.

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