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Scientists create all-optical, non-volatile chip memory

29 Sep 2015

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Light transmits large quantities of information in a short time, making it an ideal channel for data transfer and thus, an indispensable part of the IT world. But for a team of scientists based in Germany and England, light could do more than transfer data via optical fibre cables. They discovered they could capture light on a chip, hence, developing a non-volatile all-optical on-chip memory.

Traditional optical data storage media such as CDs or DVDs are slow, external mass-storage devices. Such technology is not suited to rapid data processing or for data storage on chips.

"The all-optical memory devices we have developed provide opportunities that go far beyond any of the approaches to optical data processing available today," said lead author Prof. Wolfram Pernice from the Institute of Physics at Münster University.

"Optical bits can be written in our system at frequencies of up to a gigahertz or more," added co-author Prof. Harish Bhaskaran from Oxford University in England. "And our approach can define a new speed limit for future processors by delivering extremely fast on-chip optical data storage."

In addition, he says, the written state is preserved when the power is removed, unlike most current on-chip electronic memories.

On-chip memory

The ring-shaped waveguides are designed to address individual storage elements.

"With our laboratory prototype, we now have a nanoscale integrated optical memory that is compatible not only with multi-wavelength optical fibre data transmission, but also with on-chip and chip-chip optical signalling, opening up the route towards ultra-fast data processing and storage," explained Prof. David Wright, a co-author from the University of Exeter in England. The technology might eventually be used to replicate neural-type processing such as that carried in the brain.

The scientists from Oxford, Exeter, Karlsruhe and Münster used so-called phase change materials at heart of their all-optical memory. The distinguishing feature of these materials is that they radically change their optical properties depending on their phase state, i.e. depending on the arrangement of the atoms in the material. This changeability—between crystalline (regular) and amorphous (irregular) states—allowed the team to store many bits in a single integrated nanoscale phase-change cell.

The study entitled "On-chip integratable all-photonic non-volatile multi-level memory" was published in the online publication Nature Photonics Advance.

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