Search This Blog

Monday, August 1, 2011

Summer Challenge!

Summer Challenge!

Providing clean water, ample food, high-quality medical care and education to people around the world are a few of the challenges facing the global community today. We know that when these things are in place, many other crucial social benefits like stable birthrates, can be achieved. Sustainability is at the heart of many of the grand engineering challenges, which I linked to in my first post this summer. One of the things that’s really significant to me about this list is that nanotechnology is going to play a significant role in achieving many of these goals. When biomedical testing can be made cheap enough that doctors can deliver the same high quality care in Boston as they can in Ghana, we will have really changed the world for the better.

Sharing this excitement was part of our challenge this summer as twenty high school students came to live at BU for two weeks, check out New England, and participate in a range of two-week mini classes. Toward the end of July, we met with our group of twenty students from San Francisco, China, Japan, New York, Texas, New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts to explore the basic science and new technology that is behind the developments at the Photonics Center. If you’ve followed some of my past blog posts, you have seen a lot of basic science – that light is made of small waves that bend around small things in a process called diffraction. This phenomenon is an example of super-important basic science. Here, Howard and Briana are talking through the math that explains that pattern of light on the white board, while Malika, our super undergrad engineering student looks on.

Why is it so important to understand how light and matter connect with each other? Because it’s the basis for an incredible array of new technologies – that’s why.

Take computers for an instance. As you may already know, one of the co-founders of Intel, Gordon Moore, published an observation in 1965 that became known as Moore’s Law. In that paper, Moore noticed that computer chips were becoming exponentially better, while at the same time becoming exponentially cheaper. It’s what’s behind every smart phone, every digital camera, and every other place chips find a hope, which is in almost everything we use today. However, as you might expect, there is a big problem with the idea of never-ending improvement. Today’s computer chips are smaller and faster than ever, but two things are happening.

  1. is that they keep getting hotter. Like inside a nuclear reactor hot, or even hotter.
  2. is that you can only make chips so small. Today’s transistors are around 25 nm. When designers get below 10 nm, Moore and others expect that electrons simply won’t behave themselves, and chips at that size will be useless.
Boom, done, end of high-tech industry as we know it.

This is where photonics comes in. What electronics was to the 1960’s, photonics is now: an evolving field that aims to do with light what Gordon Moore and others did with electrons back then. Right now, we use fiber optics to carry information around the world, but the insides of our computers are basically 1960’s type machines. Really tuned-up, but still things that run on electrons. Today, companies like Infinera and IBM, and research universities around the country are building the technology that will enable light to carry and process information through every part of the computer. This will create computers hundreds or thousands of times faster, while using much less energy than current ones do. The Infinera link takes you to a video that demonstrates a networking chip they’ve built. It’s not a whole computer yet, but it is a big improvement on that part of the system, and the technology is a step forward. This is part of what our students learned in summer challenge, and it’s a good backdrop for the research that I did on ultrasensitive biosensing. More on that soon!

No comments:

Post a Comment