At first glance, it’s an unremarkable gadget. About the size of a nickel, the device is made using standard technology borrowed from inkjet printers that squirts tiny bubbles at the intersection of channels carved in a slice of glass. But this seemingly mundane piece of optical equipment performs one of today’s most sought-after technology tricks. As light from an optical fiber shines onto it, the light is guided down one of the channels and, at the intersection, a bubble deflects the light beam, deftly rerouting it to just the right outgoing fiber. This “optical switch” is orders of magnitude smaller than anything now on the market and vastly outperforms existing devices, orchestrating 32 beams of light in less than one-hundredth of a second.
Not impressed? Consider that when Agilent Technologies, a recent spinoff of Hewlett-Packard, unveiled a prototype of the device at a technical meeting in Baltimore earlier this year, the company’s stock soared 47 percent, adding $23 billion to its market value. Such investor exuberance is not limited to Agilent’s version of the technology. Optical switches, which route information in the form of light, rather than converting it to electrons as most current switches do, have become one of the hottest items for those planning tomorrow’s communications systems (See companion story: “Dialing for Dollars”). A week after Agilent’s announcement, Nortel Networks spent $3.25 billion to buy a Silicon Valley startup called Xros that has a promising-but commercially untested-switching technology. And leading manufacturers of communications equipment, including Lucent Technologies and Corning, are making the development of their own optical switches a top R&D priority.