February 1, 2016

Switching light with a silver atom

The switch is based on the voltage-induced displacement of one or more silver atoms
in the narrow gap between a silver and a platinum plate.
(Illustration: Alexandros Emboras / ETH Zurich)

(February 1, 2016)  Researchers working under Juerg Leuthold, Professor of Photonics and Communications, have created the world’s smallest integrated optical switch. Applying a small voltage causes an atom to relocate, turning the switch on or off.

The quantity of data exchanged via communications networks around the globe is growing at a breathtaking rate. The volume of data for wired and mobile communications is currently increasing by 23% and 57% respectively every year. It is impossible to predict when this growth will end. This also means that all network components must constantly be made more efficient.

These components include so-called modulators, which convert the information that is originally available in electrical form into optical signals. Modulators are therefore nothing more than fast electrical switches that turn a laser signal on or off at the frequency of the incoming electrical signals. Modulators are installed in data centres in their thousands. However, they all have the disadvantage of being quite large. Measuring a few centimetres across, they take up a great deal of space when used in large numbers.

From micromodulators to nanomodulators

Six months ago, a working group led by Jürg Leuthold, Professor of Photonics and Communications already succeeded in proving that the technology could be made smaller and more energy-efficient. As part of that work, the researchers presented a micromodulator measuring just 10 micrometres across – or 10,000 times smaller than modulators in commercial use

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