Air Force funds polymer materials research for light-speed computing

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Robert Hickey, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, will use a $450,000 grant from the United States Air Force to research nanostructured polymer materials for applications in integrated optical circuits, which could allow computers to process information at light-speed.  

Through the three-year grant, funded by the Air Force Young Investigator Program, Hickey will explore the synthesis and self-assembly of polymer materials that can both guide and interpret information using light.

Integrated optical circuits are considered the next potential breakthrough for improving computing power by using only light to process and transmit data. Computers currently process data electronically and convert the data to light for transmission over long distances using fiber optics.

“The overall goal is to increase computer power on all levels, and integrated optical circuits are predicted to be that next level,” said Hickey, an expert in polymers. “The Air Force is really interested in increasing that and exploring all avenues that are possible. Light is just faster and allows for much more information to be processed at a quicker timescale.”

Computing power is limited by the speed of an electron within a wire — which is many orders of magnitude slower compared to the speed of light — and bottlenecks at the points of conversion between light and electricity. Integrated optical circuits would eliminate the electronic processing step. Additionally, light has a much wider bandwidth, meaning it can transmit more data at this higher speed.

“To make supercomputers that can process data at levels far beyond what we’re currently capable of we need to transition to light, which is the speed limit of the universe,” Hickey said. “If we could use this light and manipulate it in the same way we use and manipulate electrical currents we could really make a breakthrough in improving the limitations of computers.”

Hickey specializes in polymers created using self-assembly, a process where the material organizes at the nanoscale into ordered structures. He aims to design polymers with photonic bandgap properties — for guiding light of a desired wavelength — and nonlinear optical properties — to interpret the information carried within the light.

Although there are several materials that could emerge to become the dominant material for integrated optical circuits, Hickey said polymers have some inherent advantages. They are cheaper, easier to process, and on many levels, outperform their inorganic counterparts.

However, polymers have had issues with deteriorating performance over time. Through this grant, Hickey will look at ways of enhancing and controlling the photonic band gap and nonlinear optical properties in nanostructured polymer materials to increase long-term stability, and potentially lead to advances in integrated optical circuits.