Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Sprint has been cranking out one fine high-end smartphone like no other company in the market since the spring. This is to be expected from a company motivated by the competitive challenge of the AT&T-T-Mobile merger, which threatens to make Sprint the smallest carrier in the United States. Still, you have to credit Sprint CEO Dan Hesse and his team for their work. Rather than sit on the sidelines and rail about how unfair the proposed merger would be—though they are doing that too—the carrier has pumped out some unique or even beautiful phones and tablet computers. The Sprint Kyocera Echo is unique; the HTC Evo 3D 4G smartphone and HTC Evo View 4G are as beautiful as they are too similarly named to keep straight. Sprint's latest model with the 1GHz Nvidia dual-core processor and Android 2.3 "Gingerbread," the Motorola Photon 4G smartphone, is no exception. For $199.99 and a two-year contract, consumers will get in the Photon 4G a lot of what they saw in the Evo View 4G. However, they get more on the multimedia front because the handset can be paired with an HD multimedia dock for $99.99, which lets users flash their phone photos, music and other applications on HDTV screens. The first phone to do this, the Motorola Atrix 4G, didn't exactly sell like gangbusters for AT&T. Sprint is hoping to remedy that on its own 4G WiMax network. This eWEEK slide show walks you through the Photon 4G features.
Monday, August 8, 2011
Engineers Solve Longstanding Problem in Photonic Chip Technology: Findings Help Pave Way for Next Generation of Computer Chips
Stretching for thousands of miles beneath oceans, optical fibers now connect every continent except for Antarctica. With less data loss and higher bandwidth, optical-fiber technology allows information to zip around the world, bringing pictures, video, and other data from every corner of the globe to your computer in a split second. But although optical fibers are increasingly replacing copper wires, carrying information via photons instead of electrons, today's computer technology still relies on electronic chips.
Now, researchers led by engineers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) are paving the way for the next generation of computer-chip technology: photonic chips. With integrated circuits that use light instead of electricity, photonic chips will allow for faster computers and less data loss when connected to the global fiber-optic network.
"We want to take everything on an electronic chip and reproduce it on a photonic chip," says Liang Feng, a postdoctoral scholar in electrical engineering and the lead author on a paper to be published in the August 5 issue of the journal Science. Feng is part of Caltech's nanofabrication group, led by Axel Scherer, Bernard A. Neches Professor of Electrical Engineering, Applied Physics, and Physics, and co-director of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute at Caltech.
In that paper, the researchers describe a new technique to isolate light signals on a silicon chip, solving a longstanding problem in engineering photonic chips.
An isolated light signal can only travel in one direction. If light weren't isolated, signals sent and received between different components on a photonic circuit could interfere with one another, causing the chip to become unstable. In an electrical circuit, a device called a diode isolates electrical signals by allowing current to travel in one direction but not the other. The goal, then, is to create the photonic analog of a diode, a device called an optical isolator. "This is something scientists have been pursuing for 20 years," Feng says.
Normally, a light beam has exactly the same properties when it moves forward as when it's reflected backward. "If you can see me, then I can see you," he says. In order to isolate light, its properties need to somehow change when going in the opposite direction. An optical isolator can then block light that has these changed properties, which allows light signals to travel only in one direction between devices on a chip.
"We want to build something where you can see me, but I can't see you," Feng explains. "That means there's no signal from your side to me. The device on my side is isolated; it won't be affected by my surroundings, so the functionality of my device will be stable."
To isolate light, Feng and his colleagues designed a new type of optical waveguide, a 0.8-micron-wide silicon device that channels light. The waveguide allows light to go in one direction but changes the mode of the light when it travels in the opposite direction.
A light wave's mode corresponds to the pattern of the electromagnetic field lines that make up the wave. In the researchers' new waveguide, the light travels in a symmetric mode in one direction, but changes to an asymmetric mode in the other. Because different light modes can't interact with one another, the two beams of light thus pass through each other.
Previously, there were two main ways to achieve this kind of optical isolation. The first way -- developed almost a century ago -- is to use a magnetic field. The magnetic field changes the polarization of light -- the orientation of the light's electric-field lines -- when it travels in the opposite direction, so that the light going one way can't interfere with the light going the other way. "The problem is, you can't put a large magnetic field next to a computer," Feng says. "It's not healthy."
The second conventional method requires so-called nonlinear optical materials, which change light's frequency rather than its polarization. This technique was developed about 50 years ago, but is problematic because silicon, the material that's the basis for the integrated circuit, is a linear material. If computers were to use optical isolators made out of nonlinear materials, silicon would have to be replaced, which would require revamping all of computer technology. But with their new silicon waveguides, the researchers have become the first to isolate light with a linear material.
Although this work is just a proof-of-principle experiment, the researchers are already building an optical isolator that can be integrated onto a silicon chip. An optical isolator is essential for building the integrated, nanoscale photonic devices and components that will enable future integrated information systems on a chip. Current, state-of-the-art photonic chips operate at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) -- hundreds of times the data-transfer rates of today's personal computers -- with the next generation expected to soon hit 40 Gbps. But without built-in optical isolators, those chips are much simpler than their electronic counterparts and are not yet ready for the market. Optical isolators like those based on the researchers' designs will therefore be crucial for commercially viable photonic chips.
In addition to Feng and Scherer, the other authors on the Science paper, "Non-reciprocal light propagation in a silicon photonic circuit," are Jingqing Huang, a Caltech graduate student; Maurice Ayache of UC San Diego and Yeshaiahu Fainman, Cymer Professor in Advanced Optical Technologies at UC San Diego; and Ye-Long Xu, Ming-Hui Lu, and Yan-Feng Chen of the Nanjing National Laboratory of Microstructures in China. This research was done as part of the Center for Integrated Access Networks (CIAN), one of the National Science Foundation's Engineering Research Centers. Fainman is also the deputy director of CIAN. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Caltech engineers have developed a new way to isolate light on a photonic chip, allowing light to travel in only one direction. This finding can lead to the next generation of computer-chip technology: photonic chips that allow for faster computers and less data loss. (Credit: Caltech/Liang Feng)