New Nanoscale Optical ‘Abacus’ Uses Light Signals to Perform Arithmetic Computations

One of the most rudimentary methods of counting has received a 21st century make-over due to the quest for developing more powerful and ever-faster computers.

One of the most rudimentary methods of counting, the abacus, has been given a 21st century make-over Credit: University of Exeter

A global team of Researchers, including Professor C. David Wright from the University of Exeter, have succeeded in developing a nanoscale optical ‘abacus’, capable of using light signals in order to perform arithmetic computations.

The groundbreaking device functions by counting pulses of light – much in the same manner as how beads are used for counting when using a standard abacus – prior to storing the data. This groundbreaking new technique could pave the way to new, more powerful computers capable of merging storage and computing functions in one element – a move away from standard computers that treat these two functions separately.

The study has been published in the prominent scientific journal called Nature Communications.

This device is able to carry out all the basic functions you’d associate with the traditional abacus – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – but what’s more it can do this using picosecond (one-thousandth of a billionth of a second) light pulses.

Prof. C David Wright, Professional in Electronic Engineering and Co-author of the Study

Key Author of the study, Professor Wolfram Pernice from the Institute of Physics at Münster University in Germany added, “In the article we describe for the first time the realization of an abacus which operates in a purely optical way. Rather than wooden beads as found on traditional abacuses, our innovative device calculates with pulses of light – and simultaneously stores the result.”

The team’s optical abacus, is extremely small such that it is essentially invisible to the naked eye, and installed on a photonic microchip that can be effortlessly manufactured. The Researchers have so far succeeded in calculating with two-digit numbers employing two photonic phase-change cells, however the extension to bigger multi-digit numbers just involves the use of more cells.

Computing with light – and not with electrons, as is the case with traditional computers - means that we can develop much faster systems which can be connected using integrated optical waveguides.

Harish Bhaskaran, Professor, The University of Oxford and Co-author

“Calculating with light using a chip-scale all-optical abacus” was published on Thursday, November 2nd 2017, in Nature Communications. The German Research Foundation and the UK’s EPSRC funded the study.

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