Researchers are developing new transistors - a lifeline of all modern electronics - which are powered by laser pulses and 10,000 faster than present ones.
There are three basic types of solids: metals, semiconductors, used in today's transistors, and insulators - also called dielectrics, which do not conduct electricity and get damaged or break down if too high of fields of energy are applied to them.
Scientists led by Georgia State University and Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics discovered that when dielectrics were given very short and intense laser pulses, they start conducting electricity while remaining undamaged.
The fastest time a dielectric can process signals is on the order of 1 femtosecond ¿ the same time as the light wave oscillates and millions of times faster than the second handle of a watch jumps.
Dielectric devices hold promise to allow for much faster computing than possible today with semiconductors. Such a device can work at 1 petahertz, while the processor of today's computer runs slightly faster than at 3 gigahertz.
"Now we can fundamentally have a device that works 10 thousand times faster than a transistor that can run at 100 gigahertz," researcher Mark Stockman said in a statement.
"This is a field effect, the same type that controls a transistor. The material becomes conductive as a very high electrical field of light is applied to it, but dielectrics
are 10,000 times faster than semiconductors," he said.
At one time, scientists thought dielectrics could not be used in signal processing - breaking down when required high electric fields were applied. Instead, Stockman said, it is possible for them to work if such extreme fields are applied at a very short time.
Stockman and his fellow researchers experimented with probing optical processes in a dielectric - silica - with very short extreme ultraviolet pulses.
They discovered the fastest process that can fundamentally exist in condensed matter physics, unfolding at about at 100 attoseconds - millions of times faster than the blink of an eye.
The scientists were able to show that very short, highly intense light pulses can cause on-off electric currents - necessary in computing to make the 1s and 0s needed in the
binary language of computers - in dielectrics, making extremely swift processing possible.