In a major step towards faster computing, scientists just stored light as sound for the first time

We all know light travels much faster than sound. This is why when you’re caught in a storm, you see the flash of lightning much sooner than you hear the roar of the thunder.

Now researchers have similarly converted a “flash of lightning into thunder” on a tiny, electronic scale by successfully storing light as sound for the first time. In particular, information from light waves was converted into sound waves on a computer chip and back again in a significant step towards faster computing.

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The conversion from light to sound is important for computing because, if we ever want to shift from our current, inefficient electronic computers, we need to use microchips that carry information using light instead of electrons. These kinds of light-based chips move data at the speed of light. 

 Light is a great way to send information, especially over long distances such as through fibre-optic cables. The problem comes, though, when the information needs to be processed; light moves so fast it is hard to control. Traditional microchips use electronics to overcome this but as computers become more powerful, the heat caused by electrical resistance then becomes a problem. 

“For [light-based computers] to become a commercial reality, photonic data on the chip needs to be slowed down so that they can be processed, routed, stored and accessed,” said lead author Moritz Merklein from the University of Sydney.

Turning information from light into sound waves might be the answer. 

“The information in our chip in acoustic form travels at a velocity five orders of magnitude slower than in the optical domain,” said Dr Birgit Stiller, project supervisor. “It is like the difference between thunder and lightning,” she said.

Turning information from light into sound causes a delay, which allows the information to be stored and managed, without the heat or any resistance from radiation.

“Building an acoustic buffer inside a chip improves our ability to control information by several orders of magnitude,” said Merklein.

“Our system is not limited to a narrow bandwidth,” said Stiller. “So unlike previous systems, this allows us to store and retrieve information at multiple wavelengths simultaneously, vastly increasing the efficiency of the device.”

“This is an important step forward in the field of optical information processing as this concept fulfills all requirements for current and future generation optical communication systems,” added team member Benjamin Eggleton.

The research is published in Nature Communications.

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