Optical Computer

An optical computer is a computer that uses light instead of electricity (i.e. photons rather than electrons) to manipulate, store and transmit data. Photons have fundamentally different physical properties than electrons, and researchers have attempted to make use of these properties, mostly using the basic principles of optics, to produce computers with performance and/or capabilities greater than those of electronic computers. Optical computer technology is still in the early stages: functional optical computers have been built in the laboratory, but none have progressed past the prototype stage.

Most research projects focus on replacing current computer components with optical equivalents, resulting in an optical digital computer system processing binary data. This approach appears to offer the best short-term prospects for commercial optical computing, since optical components could be integrated into traditional computers to produce an optical/electronic hybrid. Other research projects take a non-traditional approach, attempting to develop entirely new methods of computing that are not physically possible with electronics.

Optical components for binary digital computer

The fundamental building block of modern electronic computers is the transistor. To replace electronic components with optical ones, an equivalent "optical transistor" is required. This is achieved using materials with a non-linear refractive index. In particular, materials exist where the intensity of incoming light affects the intensity of the light transmitted through the material in a similar manner to the voltage response of an electronic transistor. This "optical transistor" effect is used to create logic gates, which in turn are assembled into the higher level components of the computer's CPU.