Scientists create world’s smallest electro-optic modulator, potentially saving enormous amounts of energy in data centers

One of the longest running trends in the realm of technological innovation involves taking something that works, throwing out the things that aren’t necessary, and making the size of the original much smaller in a newer version. This miniaturization has been a staple of most “new” tech, and now it has finally been applied to great effect in the field of fiber optic networks.

Researchers working together at the Oregon State University (OSU) have reportedly created what is currently the world’s smallest electro-optic modulator, and it’s just waiting to be utilized. The use of such a small device could lead to vastly improved operations in data centers and supercomputers, specifically by reducing the energy required to perform its tasks.

According to a report on the study, the newly-minted electro-optic modulator is only around 10 times smaller but can potentially be 100 times more energy efficient compared with previous iterations. Based on official measurements, it’s almost the same size as a bacterium at 0.6 by 8 microns. With this information, it’s easy to see just how revolutionary it could one day turn out to be for fiber optic networks.

The role of an electro-optic modulator in fiber optic networks is important because it serves as the switch for optical signals. It works pretty much like a transistor does in acting as a switch for electronic signals. But in the case of electro-optic modulators, light is used instead of electricity. What the modulator does is simply turn on and turn off the light that is transmitted through optical fibers.

Alan Wang, an associate professor of electrical engineering in the OSU College of Engineering, underlines the importance of this research as far as the future of fiber optic networks is concerned. “This is by far the most exciting research I have ever done because of the impact of the device will bring and because of the challenge it was for design and fabrication,” he said. He was helped by doctoral students Erwen Li and Qian Gao, also from OSU. Their research paper was published in the journal Nano Letters.

The researchers managed to achieve the creation of their breakthrough device by leveraging existing technology that was also developed in OSU. It is said that transparent conductive oxide materials were the key to the method they used to build the world’s smallest electro-optic modulator. They used a structure that relied on a transparent conductive oxide gate instead of the more conventional metal gate, which resulted in a combination of a metal-oxide semiconductor capacitor with an ultra-compact photonic crystal nanocavity.

According to Wang, his main motivation to conduct this research and develop the new type of electro-optic modulator is the idea that major changes in the industry are afoot. He had reportedly asked his colleagues for advice on whether he was on the right track, and they informed him that reducing energy consumption could be useful. “They told me reducing the size and reducing the energy consumption is going to be the trend in the next five to 10 years in [the] industry,” he said. “So this is exactly the device they’re looking for.”

It isn’t specified when exactly the new electro-optic modulator would make an appearance in real-world fiber optic network solutions, but it’s clear that once it does, it’s going to make a major impact.

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