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Key to crazy-fast computers: Doped-up glass?

The Internet moves at light speed, but your computer doesn't. Not yet, at least. Doping up some glass to act like fiber optics could change that.


The Internet moves at the speed of light, literally, but when data hits your laptop or tablet it gets converted to slower electrical signals, cheating you out of the opportunity to switch between dozens of browser tabs at laser speed rather than the speed of laaaaaag. Turns out that doped-up glass could be the key to getting your system humming along faster, way faster.

New research published Thursday in Nature Communications shows that the electronic properties of a type of glass material used with CDs and DVDs can be manipulated -- using a technique called "ion doping" -- to make glass act like fiber optics and possibly solve the data slowdown problem.

"The challenge is to find a single material that can effectively use and control light to carry information around a computer," said Richard Curry of the University of Surrey, who worked on the research team. "Much like how the Web uses light to deliver information, we want to use light to both deliver and process computer data."

How fast information moves around your device or system depends on all sorts of things, of course, but one basic way to illustrate the problem is that when data traveling via fiber optics reaches the end of that high-speed line it has to be converted to an electrical signal and sent down a different pathway with a lower speed limit. For example, signals sent over copper wire can only travel at somewhere between roughly two-thirds to three-quarters the speed of light.

So, imagine that the optic fibers criss-crossing the planet are like superhighways and data packets are the vehicles cruising along at the fastest possible land speed around. When one of those vehicles needs to exit to visit, say, your laptop, it has to transition to the surface roads via an off-ramp, and those surface roads are likely to be more crowded with lower speed limits.

All this causes slowdowns in processing, both for your data and your commute, which kind of sucks.

"This has eluded researchers for decades, but now we have now shown how a widely used glass can be manipulated to conduct negative electrons, as well as positive charges, creating what are known as 'pn-junction' devices," Curry said in a release. "This should enable the material to act as a light source, a light guide and a light detector -- something that can carry and interpret optical information. In doing so, this could transform the computers of tomorrow, allowing them to effectively process information at much faster speeds."

The Surrey team, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and the University of Southampton, says the new technology is likely to show up first in next-generation computer memory known as CRAM and could be more widely integrated into computers within a decade.

So I suggest bookmarking those superfluous tabs for now and waiting for the day soon when you'll be able to more easily switch from CNET to Facebook to Twitch and back again within your browser at the speed of light.