Strategies vary. Stanford University electrical engineer David Miller plans to simply guide the photons through tiny air gaps using mirrors (see illustration). MIT materials scientist Lionel Kimerling has created waveguides only 200 nanometers thick-less than one-hundredth the width of a human hair-from silicon fibers insulated with silicon dioxide. Agilent and IBM, among others, are looking to make waveguides from materials called photonic crystals (see “Microphotonics,” TR January/February 2001); the materials act as miniaturized optical fibers. With photonic crystals, “You can manipulate both the optical and electronics on the same scale,” says Gian-Luca Bona, head of the Photonic Networks Group at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory.
Within five to 10 years, researchers say, optical interconnects will begin appearing in high-end computers; eventually, optics will make their way into home computers. Such computers will be fast enough to handle the flood of information coming through the fiber-optic cables that will one day stretch into homes. And with chips ready to accept optical data, the link between computers and data pipes will be fairly simple.
“There’s not a breakthrough needed to do this,” says Miller. “But we have a lot of research to do.” Still, Levi is already planning for the day when this all-optical vision becomes reality: “When fiber-to-the-home happens, you will want fiber-to-the-processor-based systems in your home-to look at real-time holograms of the grandkids.”