3:55 p.m. Apr. 6, 2000 PDT
WASHINGTON -- A device that operates at very low voltage but can quickly convert signals into optical transmissions promises to make surfing the Web a snap, researchers said on Thursday.
The device, a modulator called an "opto-chip," could also act as a steering device for radar and satellite communications, the researchers report in the journal Science.
It can convert electric signals into optical transmissions at a rate of 100 gigabytes of information per second, said Larry Dalton, a chemist at the University of Washington and University of Southern California who helped lead the study.
"These electro-optic modulators will permit real-time communication. You won't have to wait for your computer to download even the largest files," Dalton said in a statement.
"We'll be able to take telephone signals, computer data, TV signals -- any type of signal you can think of -- put it on fiber optic, route it around the world with almost no optical signal loss, and accomplish this with infinite bandwidth," he added.
"It has the potential of revolutionizing the way we all function."
Modulators act like translators, encoding electrical signals onto optical beams that can carry the information.
The best ones have large bandwidth -- a reference to the capacity to carry information -- but need little electricity to work.
Dalton and his colleagues tried using organic molecules called chromophores, embedded in a polymer matrix. Chromophores are known for their electro-optic capabilities and scientists have been tinkering with them for years, but they tend to interfere with one another.
The researchers changed the shape of the chromophores, and found this alteration minimized the clash in their electrical fields.
Dalton said one feature of the new modulator is its ease of integration. The devices can be densely packed intopackages without optical energy leaking between them or overheating.
Researchers at Tacan Corp. in Carlsbad, California, tested the opto-chips and got them to translate electronic cable television signals into optical signals using less than one volt of electricity.
Researchers at Lockheed Martin Corp.'s (LMT) research laboratory in Palo Alto, California said they had since replicated those results in tests involving other applications.