Photonic PCs and hyperlenses coming soon

Future computer brains could be powered by light
Future computer brains could be powered by light

The American military is leading research into a new field of optics that could revolutionise all manner of electronic devices, according to the journal Science.

The U.S. Office of Naval Research and Department of Defense are working hard in the field of 'transformation optics' to develop such devices as ultra-high power microscopes, computers that use light and - that old favourite - invisibility cloaks.

Current optical technologies are limited because components cannot be smaller than the size of the wavelengths of light. Transformation optics sidesteps this by new 'metamaterials' which are able to guide and control light on all scales, down to billionths of a metre.

Metamaterials can accurately curve light, enabling computers using light to process information thousands of times faster than conventional computers using electronic signals.

Now do you don't see it, now you do

The first product to come from transformation optics is likely to be the planar hyperlens: a new type of lens that can simply added to current microscopes to increase their magnifying power by an order of magniture. This could let you see molecules like DNA and viruses directly, for the first time.

Experts writing in the latest issue of Science predict that researchers may be building prototypes planar hyperlenses within five years, just as soon as they can find that darn invisibility cloak's 'off' switch.

Mark Harris is Senior Research Director at Gartner.