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See Inside April 2007

The Promise of Plasmonics

A technology that squeezes electromagnetic waves into minuscule structures may yield a new generation of superfast computer chips and ultrasensitive molecular detectors

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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.

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