A breakthrough technology described by Larry Dalton of the University of Washington in Science last spring--and its path to potential profit--are both lessons in pure speed. Microvision Inc. of Bothell, Wash., announced on Monday the formation of a majority-owned subsidiary, Lumera Corporation, to develop and market Dalton's opto-chips, devices that promise to convert electrical signals into optical ones at speeds 10 times faster than current electronics. At that rate, a single fiber-optic cable could carry a bandwidth of almost 120 gigahertz--enough to handle some 1,000 cable channels. Under a technology licensing agreement, UW will own stock in Lumera, hold a board position and receive royalties from sales of devices based on the technology. Lumera in turn will support advanced research in photonics led by Dalton.

The opto-chips are based on specially designed organic molecules, called chromophores, embedded in plastic. Waveguide channels to direct optical signals can be etched into wafers made from the organic polymers. Applying an external electric field causes the chromophore molecules to align themselves such that they conduct and control the speed of light traveling through the guide. Prototype devices developed by Lumera's team have already achieved record-setting bandwidths in excess of 100 gigahertz, operating at exceptionally low voltages--below one volt. The polymers hold several other advantages over existing, nonorganic materials such as gallium arsenide: less optical loss and easy integration with circuits on silicon chips. The company plans to make prototypes available to customers for testing in 2001 and to begin production in 2002.