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Light-Emitting Particles Yield Faster Computing 65

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the naming-committee-receives-a-yellow-card dept.
schliz writes to tell us that researchers at the University of California San Diego are developing new transistors based on particles called 'excitons' in an attempt to speed up the interaction between computing and communications signals. "Excitons are formed by linking a negatively-charged electron with a positively-charged 'hole'. An exciton decays when the electron and hole combine, emitting a flash of light in the process. By joining exciton-based transistors to form several types of switches, the UCSD physicists were able to achieve switching times on the order of 200 picoseconds."
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Light-Emitting Particles Yield Faster Computing

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  • Bright idea (Score:3, Funny)

    by suck_burners_rice (1258684) on Friday June 20, 2008 @06:17PM (#23879985)
    Excitons...hmmm, what a bright idea!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 20, 2008 @06:26PM (#23880085)

    We're talking about a faster porn delivery system. This quote kind of says it all,

    ""Excitons are formed by linking a negatively-charged electron with a positively-charged 'hole'."

    • by dunnius (1298159)

      We're talking about a faster porn delivery system. This quote kind of says it all,

      ""Excitons are formed by linking a negatively-charged electron with a positively-charged 'hole'."

      I think it is a bit dangerous to mention "hole" and "porn" together in the same post.
      • by dorix (414150)

        Why? Without at least one "hole", it's not very interesting "porn" to most people.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 20, 2008 @06:27PM (#23880097)

    Hmmm.... 200 ps switch times.

    A modern processor operating at 2GHz has one clock cycle every 500ps. A signal leaving a flop and travelling to another flop typically goes through about 20 gate delays, yielding a switch time of 500/20=25ps.

    Tell me again how this is faster?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by halsver (885120)
      It's not faster for transistors, but it is good for: Switching between mediums that rely on photons and those that rely on electrons to transmit information. Possible future uses: faster fiber to ethernet signal conversion and conversion in future-technology of photon based processors. Basically like the guy said earlier, faster porn.
    • by TopSpin (753) * on Friday June 20, 2008 @07:57PM (#23880885) Journal

      Tell me again how this is faster?

      No. Instead, address the relevant question; how much time is necessary to convert a signal leaving a flop into an optical signal using conventional methods as opposed to this supposedly new technique?

      As the submission states, this is...

      an attempt to speed up the interaction between computing and communications signals

      and as the linked story, poor as it is, points out...

      While exciton-based computation may not be faster than electron-based circuits, the scientists expect to produce speed advantages in communications

      ...I can only assume you have reading comprehension issues.

      • by JoCat (1291368)

        ...I can only assume you have reading comprehension issues.

        Or he was mislead by a title that says, "Light-Emitting Particles YIELD FASTER COMPUTING"
    • by slew (2918) on Friday June 20, 2008 @08:04PM (#23880929)

      Excitons are _not_ supposed to be faster switchers (it even says this in the article).

      The value proposition is that they can switch at the same rate as electronic circuits, but where normal electronic circuits have slower interconnect, excitons based switching transistors can use faster interconnect.

      Basically electrons traveling down wires travel only about 50-75% the speed of light (as I recall that's some phonon-limit). In addition, there with current MOSTFET transistor technology, the gates are voltage sensitive so you need to charge up the capacitance as well. If a exiton transitor emits a photons, the photon has the potential to travel faster (given the right interconnect medium up to near the speed of light) to the next switch resulting in overall faster computing.

      In the short term, this could make some things easier transiting things from one chip to another chip (say a processor to a memory chip), between chips in a multi-chip module (using some inter-die optical interconnect layer), or even from one side of a chip to another (which takes longer than a clock cycle in todays advanced high-speed chips).

      In the longer term, these types of breakthroughs may actually make computing faster. For example, if your computation involved no feedback, in principle, it would be limited by switching speed (and many circuit design techniques try to do this today by pipelining clocks with data in the same direction), but with feedback, you eventually become limited by circuit-to-circuit propagation delay (so-called wire-delay). This is probably what they are thinking about it helping, but that type of development is probably much further away.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Basically electrons traveling down wires travel only about 50-75% the speed of light (as I recall that's some phonon-limit).
        Crap. The electrical signal is propagated thru the wire at this speed, hence the term phonon limit. Phonons are quanta of physical vibration.
        Individual electrons travel at much slower speeds in a wire, on the order of molecules in a gas between collisions.
      • by kawdyr (1209648) on Friday June 20, 2008 @08:45PM (#23881235)

        Basically electrons traveling down wires travel only about 50-75% the speed of light
        Not to nitpick (very informative post), but the electrons themselves usually move at something around 1mm per second. It's only the signal that travels a significant fraction of the speed of light. Gratuitous Wikipedia reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_current#Current_in_a_metal_wire [wikipedia.org]
        • by AllenL (1106377)
          Electrons themselves do move at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, but in random directions. The net movement of electrons (called the drift speed) is quite slow, however.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        You are looking for this link:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velocity_of_propagation

        Electromagnetic waves travel at the speed of light in a vacuum. In copper wire it can be as low as 40% of the speed of light.

        If I recall, converting from electricity to light and back was really slow, so this will help switching speeds, and thus internet bandwidth.

  • by statemachine (840641) on Friday June 20, 2008 @06:29PM (#23880107)

    Because the one in the submission was fairly content free. You can come to your own conclusions about what its unattributed original source is.

    Exciton-based circuits eliminate a 'speed trap' between computing and communication signals [physorg.com]
    A wikipedia article, but still better than the submission [wikipedia.org]

    I'm still scratching my head, but at least it's not drawing blood anymore.

    • by Goldsmith (561202) on Friday June 20, 2008 @06:57PM (#23880361)

      The original source for this particular experiment is this [sciencemag.org] Science article. The submission was terrible. Press releases should be banned from any site which claims to have intelligent discussion.


      An indirect exciton (what these guys are using) is made using three layers. In one layer, you have extra electrons (negative charges). In another layer, you have a lack of electrons (positive charges). In between those two is an insulating layer. If you tune the charge densities and some other parameters (temperature, for example), you can get the positive and negative charges in the two charged layers to align into pairs. Each pair is an exciton.


      A normal exciton is a pair like this without the insulator between them. As you might imagine, they don't last very long and pretty much instantly combine. When an exciton combines, it gives off light at a very particular wavelength. Conversely, when light at that particular wavelength is adsorbed by the material, it creates an exciton.


      You could imagine creating an exciton with light, making it an indirect exciton (so that it's stable), doing something with it, and then making it a normal exciton again and waiting the picosecond or so it takes for it to collapse and emit light. That's basically what they've done... but it's much harder than I've made it sound.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jd (1658)
        I did my best to vote it down, but obviously enough people disagreed. Press releases actually do have a place, IMHO, but only when it's something that is genuinely interesting and, well, genuine. Intel's 80 core CPU press release may or may not have qualified, as we can't know for sure if the wafer held up had 80 cores. ASUS' press release of using Linux in the BIOS was a real thing, so qualified for discussion.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mikael (484)

        I wonder if it would be possible to etch hollow channels on a circuit board and have photons bounce through them rather than just have electrons running through wires.

      • Press releases should be banned

        Hi! you must be new here.
    • by Bourgie59 (979410) on Friday June 20, 2008 @07:03PM (#23880407)
      Here is the original abstract [sciencemag.org] and journal article [sciencemag.org] set to be published in Science [sciencemag.org] and already fast tracked to ScienceXpress [sciencemag.org]
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Dakhran (319216)

      Also, the article sourced in the submission is apparently using a copyrighted image, that of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon 20th anniversary cover. IANAL, but it doesn't look like it's covered under fair use, either.

  • How does a "hole" differ from a positron? In fact, that was Dirac's initial model for a positron -- a hole in a sea of negative energy level electrons.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      a positron is the antiparticle of an electron, having spin 1/2 and charge +e, while a "hole" is exactly what you've described; a hole in a sea of electrons.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      That may have been the initial model. but today, positron is anti-electron and in semiconductor industry a hole is lack of electron. I haven't read the article (this is /. after all) but IMO the flash of light here is not due to annihilation of matter but due to the electron entering a lower energy state.

      • You are correct. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Xocet_00 (635069) on Friday June 20, 2008 @07:21PM (#23880581)
        Disclaimer: I work in a lab that develops both transistors and photocells. I don't know exactly what they did, but based on the summary and the article, I'd surmise the following.

        In an organic photocell an incoming photo will excite an electron. The positive and negative charges (electron and hole) will be "linked" together (i.e. they will move around together). In this state they are not useful. However, if you can separate them and draw them in different directions, then you'll get a current. They can only be drawn apart if you create a situation in which it is energetically favorable for them to separate, usually by attracting them to high and low work function contacts. Therefore, in a photocell of this type, you sandwich two materials together - one in which it is easy for holes to move, but difficult for electrons, and one in which it is easy for electrons to move, but difficult for holes (called the hole transport and electron transport layers). Then, you put a bias across the layers by using two dissimilar contact materials, one high work function and one low work function. Note that one contact needs to be transparent (ITO is most common) so photons can get to the middle layers.

        Anyway, when an exciton is created it goes on a random walk through the material in which it is created, and will eventually collapse. The 'exciton diffusion length' is the distance over which your average exciton will move before collapsing. You want any created excitons to be within a diffusion length of the interface between the hole and electron transport layers. When the exciton hits an interface, it separates and the charges move towards their respective contacts. Put a load across the contacts, and you've got a working circuit (assuming excitons are being created).

        This is a mildly simplified explanation, but it works.

        Anyway, you can go the other way - imagine injecting an electron in one side and a hole into the other. You could choose your materials such that they would meet up at the interface and collapse together, emitting a photon. This is an OLED, and is conceptually similar to the photocells I just described.

        So now imagine that you make it so that either the hole or electron transport layer is semiconducting. You could set up your device such that a dielectric layer and then a 'gate' contact are touching the transport layers along an axis perpendicular to the nominal current flow through your device (like in a thin-film transistor). Then, the layers would only transport charge (like in a transistor) and hence emit light (like in an OLED) when a voltage is applied to the gate contact. Then you have a thin-film device across which you put a bias that only emits light (and draws current) when it is switched 'on' by the gate contact.

        In other words, you've combined a TFT with an OLED. Very, very slick.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by barometz (1307743)
      The hole is not a particle, it's merely a spot in some piece of matter where an electron could pop in to make everything nice and neutral.
    • by wizardforce (1005805) on Friday June 20, 2008 @06:55PM (#23880339) Journal
      a hole is an area deficient of at least one electron, a positron O.T.O.H is a particle of antimatter that reacts with an electron to form gamma radiation at 1022 kev
    • by Bloater (12932)

      How does a "hole" differ from a positron?

      Its rest mass.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Goaway (82658)

      An electron hole is a lack of positive-energy electrons. A positron in the Dirac model is a lack of a negative-energy electron.

      • by sconeu (64226)

        Thank you.

        To all the others, I'm well aware of what a positron is. I was pointing out that a positron could be modeled as parent mentioned.

    • by camperdave (969942) on Friday June 20, 2008 @07:19PM (#23880549) Journal
      How does a "hole" differ from a positron?

      A positron is a real particle with real mass. It is made up of quarks and has the same characteristics as an electron, except that it's charge is reversed.

      A "hole", on the other hand, is essentially the absence of an electron where one should be. It's like those sliding puzzles with the 15 tiles that you have to arrange in numerical order. There should be 16 tiles, but one is "missing" creating a hole. This hole moves around by sliding tiles into it.

      A similar thing happens in the silicon of a semiconductor. Ideal silicon is a regular grid of molecules that have exactly enough electrons to fill each other's electron shells. With P-type semiconductors, a small chemical impurity is introduced into the silicon grid. This impurity does not have enough electrons to share with the surrounding atoms. So, like the sliding tile puzzle, there is a "hole", a place where an electron could fit. By applying a voltage to the silicon, the hole can be made to move along the grid.

      N-type semiconductors are built the same way, except that the impurity that is added to the silicon has an extra electron. This roam around the silicon grid looking for a spot to settle, much like the last kid in a game of musical chairs. The electron can also be moved around by applying a voltage to the silicon.

      Now, if you have a mix of P-type and N-type, what happens is that the extra electron in the N-type eventually settles into the "hole" of the P-type. In doing that the electron loses a certain amount of energy, which is emitted as a photon. However, in doing so, it has induced a charge in the semiconductor. The P-type now has more electrons than protons (they were balanced before, despite the presense of the "hole"), and the N-type now has less electrons than protons (it too was balanced before, despite the "extra" electron). This charge imbalance makes it easy for a photon to come along and pop the electron out of the hole and back to the N-type.

      By varying the quantities of impurites, and where, and how thick the transitions between P-Type and N-Type silicon, the clever engineers can make all sorts of semiconductor devices.
      • by AdamHaun (43173) on Friday June 20, 2008 @08:22PM (#23881059) Journal

        Electrons and positrons aren't made of quarks. They're fundamental particles.

        • Electrons and positrons aren't made of quarks. They're fundamental particles.

          You're right! My bad. I was under the impression that all of the "classic" atomic particles (protons, neutrons, and electrons) were made of quarks.
          • by AdamHaun (43173)

            Just protrons and neutrons. Electrons, quarks, and neutrinos, along with their antiparticles and possibly supersymmetric counterparts and the bosons (photons, etc.) are the most fundamental particles known today.

        • by the_olo (160789)

          More specifically, electrons [wikipedia.org] are leptons [wikipedia.org], which are a kind of fermions [wikipedia.org].

          Quarks [wikipedia.org] are the other type of fermions [wikipedia.org].

      • How does a "hole" differ from a positron?

        A positron is a real particle with real mass. It is made up of quarks and has the same characteristics as an electron, except that it's charge is reversed.

        A "hole", on the other hand, is essentially the absence of an electron where one should be. It's like those sliding puzzles with the 15 tiles that you have to arrange in numerical order. There should be 16 tiles, but one is "missing" creating a hole. This hole moves around by sliding tiles into it.

        But explain how an experiment could distinguish between a lack of a negative-enegery electron (in a quantum see of them, not just a semiconductor) and a positron

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by osu-neko (2604)

          But explain how an experiment could distinguish between a lack of a negative-enegery electron (in a quantum see of them, not just a semiconductor) and a positron

          You wouldn't have one in a quantum sea of them. The hole is basically a missing electron in an otherwise full valence band. You have to be talking about semiconductors or similar chemical contexts for the concept to make any sense.

          A positron, on the other hand, is a particle that could exist on its own in a vacuum.

  • by viking80 (697716) on Friday June 20, 2008 @06:57PM (#23880357) Journal

    An exiton is just an electron "bounced" out of its location, leaving a positively charged hole behind. The negative electron and the positive hole (the imaginary particle) pair forms an "exotic atom" state similar to a hydrogne atom, but with a much lower binding energy and a much larger size.

    This behavior is the standard behavior semiconductors.

    It appears the difference here is that when the electron/hole pair reunites, a photon is emitted.

    This appear awfully close to what an LED is, and the article is void of any information to distinguish this component from the LED.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      200ps?

      sounds like about how long most of you geeks last when you finally get to put your exciton in a hole

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by StarReaver (1070668)
      So...Adding more LEDs to a computer make it faster?
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Exiton (1244590)
      It's true, I'm not really here.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by comingstorm (807999)

      You're right, this is basically a fancy LED. The difference seems to be that they're exercising control over when the holes and electrons recombine, in order to switch it off and on much faster.

      In a regular LED, you have to flood the diode with minority carriers, and wait for them to recombine spontaneously, which presumably has a nice long time constant, so you can't actually turn it off and on very easily...

      In this exciton thing, they're letting the minority carriers combine into excitons first, wh

  • Vacuum tubes (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by bluefoxlucid (723572)

    My guitar amp works on vacuum tubes. Basically, the negatively charged cathode emits electrons when heated, creating a "space charge" in the area. In the recto tube (responsible for the characteristic "Sag" effect due to reaction delays when current demand jumps) this floats across to the positively charged anode and gets siphoned away; in a triode or beam tetrode or pentode or whatever else, a grid manages the flow.

    I've used a MOSFET as a source follower, the source being the negative source of course, to

  • Basically this means a faster internet, yes?
    because if this method can be used to convert photons into electrons quicker it means there will be less internet bottle necks because the backbone is fibre but is controlled by electronic computers

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