It was so '80s, the dream of building an optical computer faster and more flexible than its electronic counterpart. That vision foundered because of the intrinsic challenges of processing light: simple things, like storing zeros and ones in the form of photons, proved inordinately difficult. These labors were not all wasted, however. The search for devices sufficiently small to meet the specifications for optical processors led to the development of lasers only a few millionths of a meter in width.
Although these small, cheap lasers, which can be integrated with a microchip, still won't make optical computing a reality, they are now opening new vistas in the still hot, Internet-driven market for optical communications. In the past few years, microlasers have reached the commercial marketplace, serving as transmitters for the dozens and dozens of fiber connections among the switching circuit cards in the huge routers (sometimes channeling trillions of bits each second) that send data packets along different paths in the network.
Sales for primarily short-reach, microlaser-based transmitter-receivers--including those in local-area networks--will increase from $262 million in 1999 to $14 billion in 2009, according to market researcher ElectroniCast. "They've blown away other types of lasers in terms of the quality of the light they produce and the cost of manufacturing," notes a report at Light Reading, a Web site that covers optical technologies.
This article was originally published with the title Cheap Light.