Graphene Turns Light Into Electricity For Faster Circuits

Welcome to another episode of “Cool Science Stuff That Probably Will Have Some Effect On Our Lives Later But We Probably Won’t Realize It.” In this week’s installment we present graphene photosensors.

While the vast majority of high speed data is transmitted via fiber optic cables, there is always a “last nanometer” problem where the light signals must be converted into electrical impulses. This works using a photodetector that “sees” the light and converts the signal. Enter graphene.
Using a single layer of hexagonally arranged carbon atoms, researchers at the Vienna University of Technology have created an ultra-small, ultra-fast, and ultra-efficient method for turning photons into electrons. While most photodetectors are fairly large and bulky, this one can accept up to 20,000 inputs in a chip about 1cm square – a feat that could allow computers to use light to transfer data between cores and then allow for a central “switch” to parse and interconnect those cores electronically. In other words think of this as a 20,000 port router that fits inside a USB port.

“There are many materials that can transform light into electrical signals, but graphene allows for a particularly fast conversion,” said researcher Thomas Müller in a report on the technology. “These technologies are not only important for transmitting data over large distances. Optical data transmission also becomes more and more important within computers themselves.”

Because this is such a specific type of conversion I doubt we’ll see PCs with light-based interconnects. However I could definitely see a massive mainframe moving from wired to optical connections and who knows: maybe Ethernet will go the way of the Dodo and the serial port.