Seeing the light

Seeing the light

The HOT consortium, of which Malta forms part, aims to lay the foundation for an optomechanical revolution, André Xuereb says.

Optomechanics is the study of how light interacts with moving objects.

Optomechanics is the study of how light interacts with moving objects.

Samsung may have lost billions of euros because of its exploding battery problems, but future devices will avoid this issue by using light instead of electricity.

But why do phones and computers get hot? Like dragging your feet on a carpet, the electrons whizzing around the phone in your pocket cause it to heat up. One small design flaw is all it takes for your phone to blow up.

Scientists from the Malta and 10 other countries – Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the UK – are working to solve this problem. The Hybrid Optomechanical Technologies (HOT) consortium was awarded a €10 million grant from the European Commission to create technologies that work using light.

This recognises the world-class research in the Department of Physics at the University of Malta. Dr André Xuereb, senior lecturer in quantum mechanics in the Department of Physics at the University of Malta, is coordinating local participation.

What is Malta’s role in this project?

■ The group in Malta will play a dual role in this project. We will lead one of the four main technical pillars that support this project. In short, this work will be concerned with developing the basis for a new kind of technology. We will also be leading the dissemination and outreach strategy for the entire project.

While this brings with it a substantial challenge – coordinating the public relations strategy for 17 groups of researchers spread around 10 countries is far from easy – it also gives the University of Malta significant exposure, both nationally and around the world. We are already planning several innovative activities, including a light show in Valletta and a game for tablets aimed at young schoolchildren.

What does Hybrid Optomechanical Technologies actually mean?

■ The key word is ‘optomechanical,’ which is not a word many people outside our field of study are familiar with. Optomechanics is the study of how light interacts with moving objects. Curiously, light can actually push things around. The easiest way to think about this effect is to imagine light as if it were water coming out of a hose. Just like the water we are all familiar with, simply by pointing light at something we can push it.

However, this push is incredibly tiny, and it is only with recent advances in nanotechnology that it has become possible to see its effects.

The technologies we develop will also allow us to create the basis for computers that work entirely using light

The word ‘technologies’ represents an important milestone, because we are being contracted by the European Commission to go beyond what we usually do – work in our laboratories to show cool new effects – and produce actual technologies, which we hope will have big effect on information and sensing technologies.

Finally, the word ‘hybrid’ refers to the fact that we are putting together several different kinds of platforms and advances in order to make possible the technological advances we seek.

What are the main aims of the project?

■ This project has four key objectives.

The first is to solve a problem that is becoming more of an issue as we enter the age of big data. Computers nowadays work using electricity. At their heart, all the devices we use every day are built up of what are commonly called chips. These integrated circuits are basically built up of millions of tiny electrical switches, called transistors. Depending on how these transistors inside it are powered, your computer can either calculate your taxes or show you the latest cat video making the rounds online. Information travels around the globe in the form of light. Malta is in fact connected to the rest of the world by means of a handful of fibre optic cables that carry information in the form of light. The problem I was referring to concerns how to match these two realities: electricity and light are not the best of buddies, and current technologies that allow computers to communicate by means of light are inefficient.

It is here that optomechanics shines. Scientists, including my colleagues in this project, have come up with ways in which optomechanical devices can make this process better and more efficient. For example, we hope to be able to make it work with much less light, which would help to greatly reduce the amount of power needed to transmit information around the world. We are also trying to create devices that can sense minute levels of light or other signals, which would improve the accuracy of medical scanners.

The second objective is to lay the foundation for an optomechanical revolution. Computers really took off only after it became possible to build not just single transistors but chips containing many of them, up to billions in the latest processors. In HOT, we will explore systems that put together many optomechanical devices, perhaps building the first optomechanical chips. It is this work that will be led primarily by the University of Malta.

The third pillar of HOT is intended to push the optomechanical envelope further. Our project will investigate new ways through which light can interact with the motion of small devices, thus producing not only new technological advances but also developing entirely new science. The first devices we develop here will be used to replace key components in current technology, creating better antennas for mobile phones, for example.

The last key pillar is perhaps the one that will have the greatest impact on the world of technology. The lifecycle of new technologies is very complicated, starting off from an initial idea, which is often outlandish or somewhat crazy, going through a series of milestones in laboratories, and finally making the leap from laboratories to the real world. We expended considerable effort in HOT to ensure that we cover all these bases. With the help of two industrial giants, IBM and STMicroelectronics, this project will develop the means to bring the advances we make to market in the form of devices that people can buy.

What are the potential new technologies being researched and studied, and how would these be applied in a commercial and home context?

■ We are developing not so much a technology itself but a platform for new technologies. This platform can be applied to improve devices across the board. We will create a means for computers to work directly with light, which will yield systems that are more efficient and use less power. The technologies we develop will also allow us to create the basis for computers that work entirely using light.

In the not-so-distant future, super-fast quantum computers will be a reality – today’s computer chips are not a suitable means with which to build quantum computers, but optomechanical technologies could be a possible way forward.

Away from ICT, this project has potential to disrupt the sensor market. All our mobile phones and handheld technologies contain micro-electro-mechanical systems that are used, for example, to detect when the phone moves, and in which direction. Many of us have played games on our phones that we control by moving the phone around. It is MEMS that make such games possible.

Optomechanical technologies could greatly improve or replace many devices in this $12bn market. One foreseen application is to create motion sensors so accurate that they could help us navigate underground, for example in long tunnels or underwater, where GPS signals are unavailable.

These technologies, which could overhaul entire markets and generate economic growth in all the countries involved in this project, are the tip of the iceberg. Just like one cannot build a penthouse without having first built the underlying flats, the application-driven research that forms the bulk of this project lies towards the end of a long process that starts with blue-sky, or curiosity-driven, research.

Indeed, the first steps towards this project were made as far back as the 1970s, when scientists were investigating how to detect gravitational waves, something which itself only became a reality in 2015. Without the investment by several countries in this field, we would not be in a position where we can say with quite some confidence that optomechanical technologies may soon be on the market. In the local context, I believe that it is essential to invest in such curiosity-driven research, since it is the only way through which Malta can participate in the creation of entirely new technologies, rather than merely using or manufacturing them.

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