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Research project could deliver 'speed of light computing' and help safeguard the environment


Researchers here at the University have been awarded a major grant to develop nanoscale light sources on silicon chips, which could deliver ‘computing at the speed of light’ and help the environment. 

The research team say the project could lead to the development of ultra-fast computers and dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the Internet.

If successful, they claim it could rival in importance the discovery of room-temperature liquid crystals by George Gray, now used in everything from smart phones to flat-screen TVs, at the University of Hull more than 40 years ago.

The EU-funded project includes the University of Cambridge, universities and research institutes in Germany and Spain and industry partners in Germany and the Czech Republic.

Dr Martin Buzza, who is leading the Hull team, said: “Information technology is facing an imminent global crisis as current computers, which are based on the transport of electrons, are rapidly reaching their ultimate performance limit, while the electricity consumption of the internet will be unsustainable within 10 years.

“It’s widely recognised that there is an urgent need to move towards light-based computing. However, the fundamental roadblock preventing progress in this area is the fact that current top-down fabrication techniques do not have the resolution or the speed to integrate nanoscale light sources on a silicon chip. The aim of this project is to develop a radical new self-assembly, or bottom-up approach, to create nanoscale light sources on a silicon chip.”

Light-based computing offers exponential increases in computing speed and much lower energy consumption levels compared to traditional computers, which operate by passing electrons through electronic integrated circuits on silicon chips. 

Data centre electricity consumption in the U.S alone is estimated at roughly 140 billion kilowatt-hours annually, the equivalent annual output of 50 coal-fired power plants, and emitting nearly 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year.

The total energy required to power the Internet currently is estimated to represent more than 4% of all electricity generation. With Internet traffic doubling approximately every 18 months, a 64-fold increase in the total power consumption is expected in less than 10 years. 

This would require more than a doubling of the required total capacity for global electricity generation. Fortunately, the fundamental properties of light allow for a significant reduced power consumption compared to all-electric solutions.

Dr Buzza added: “The breakthrough provided by our project will allow us to create photonic integrated circuits that will revolutionise information technology by creating unimaginably fast computers and massively reducing the power consumption and carbon footprint of the internet. The flexibility of our self-assembly approach also means that it can be applied to non-silicon platforms, such as short-haul data transfer in cars or fibre-to-home transfers. This is a Holy Grail of computing. If successful, the impact of the project will be as important as the impact of the project will be as important as the discovery of room temperature liquid crystals by George Gray in Hull 40 years ago.”

The University of Hull team includes researchers from Physics and Chemistry. Working with Dr Buzza on the project are Dr Ali AdawiDr Jean-Sebastien Bouillard and Dr Tommy Horozov. The project builds on Hull’s international reputation in both self-assembly and nanophotonics, creating a powerful synergy between these areas. 

Research such as this also provides students with opportunities for cutting edge research within their final projects and lab work. Physics student Daniel Whitt said "Final projects are really good because they aren’t just repeat projects, you’re working with the team and actually building fresh research and if your project is good enough and you get the results you need and you want it could be paper worthy. Which means at the end of the year your masters project could actually go onto build a scientific paper.”

Physics student Nicole Farrier added "The projects here at the University allow us to get involved in authentic research, not just tasks that will allow us to get a degree. These projects also allow me to be creative and to put the ideas that I’ve had into practice." 

Dr Buzza added: “The project connects Hull to some of the biggest players in the field, putting us on the research map globally in this important area of science and technology and will contribute significantly to Hull’s research reputation. 

“The fact that the project is being led by an SME in AMO GmbH should help to accelerate the impact of any discovery. The business specialises in innovating and transferring technology on to businesses for commercial applications, providing a direct route to market.”

“The project connects Hull to some of the biggest players in the field, putting us on the research map globally in this important area of science and technology.” Dr Martin Buzza, University of Hull

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