Turning Light Into Sound Could Speed the Internet

A green laser ray is emitted above Lyon, France to calculate the variations of light speed in the atmosphere on September 24, 2015. JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time ever, researchers from the University of Sydney have discovered how to store light as sound—a finding that may someday lead to lightning-fast internet speeds.

It sounds bonkers, but here's how it works: Right now, information can travel at the speed of light—as it does along fiber optic cables. The problem is, today's computer chips can't retrieve and process information moving that quickly.

In response, companies like IBM, Intel, HP and more have spent billions trying to create an optoelectric chip that would compute electronically, but use light to move information. They haven't had much luck. These researchers in Sydney decided that, instead of changing the chip, they'd change the information.

"For [light-based computers] to become a commercial reality, photonic data on the chip needs to be slowed down so that they can be processed, routed, stored and accessed," Moriz Merklein, one of the researchers on the team, said in a statement issued by the University of Sydney.

So with this new technology, today's computers would be able to process data in the form of photons, instead of electrons. Data would start as photons traveling at the speed of light, slow to the speed of sound to be read and processed by a computer chip, and changed back into the speed of light. It works by allowing data to enter the computer chip as a photonic pulse of light and interact with another pulse to produce the sound wave that stores the data. Another pulse of light accesses the sound data, and turns it back into light.

"The information in our chip in acoustic form travels at a velocity of five orders of magnitude slower than in the optical domain," Dr. Birgit Stiller, research fellow at the University of Sydney, said. "It's like the difference between thunder and lightning."

Once this technology is prepared to move into a commercial reality, computers will have all the benefits of data delivered by light-speed, beyond speed. These computers also won't produce heat or suck up energy like current devices, so they won't burn your legs after hours of work. But it would also be slow enough that today's computer chips could actually read the information.

"This is an important step forward in the field of optical information processing as this concept fulfills all requirements for current and future generation optical communication systems," researcher Benjamin Eggleton said in a statement issued by the University of Sydney.