LIGHT BEAM striking a metal surface can generate plasmons, electron density waves that can carry huge amounts of data. If focused on a surface etched with a circular groove, as in this artist's rendering, the beam produces concentric waves, organizing the electrons into high- and low-density rings. Image: PHIL SAUNDERS Space Channel Ltd.
Light is a wonderful medium for carrying information.
Optical fibers now span the globe, guiding light signals that convey voluminous streams of voice communications and vast amounts of data. This gargantuan capacity has led some researchers to prophesy that photonic devices--which channel and manipulate visible light and other electromagnetic waves--could someday replace electronic circuits in microprocessors and other computer chips. Unfortunately, the size and performance of photonic devices are constrained by the diffraction limit; because of interference between closely spaced light waves, the width of an optical fiber carrying them must be at least half the light's wavelength inside the material. For chip-based optical signals, which will most likely employ near-infrared wavelengths of about 1,500 nanometers (billionths of a meter), the minimum width is much larger than the smallest electronic devices currently in use; some transistors in silicon integrated circuits, for instance, have features smaller than 100 nanometers.
This article was originally published with the title The Promise of Plasmonics.