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$2 million NSF grant funds physicists' quest for optical transistors

The National Science Foundation awarded two Emory physicists a $2 million Emergent Frontiers grant, for development of miniaturized optical transistors to take computers and telecommunications into a new era.

“We are working to change some properties of light — such as making it travel in only one direction — by using atomically thin, two-dimensional materials,” says Ajit Srivastava, assistant professor of physics and principal investigator for the grant. “These novel materials are being touted as the next silicon. They could open the door to even smaller and more efficient electronics than are possible today.”

Srivastava’s co-investigators include Hayk Harutyunyan, also an assistant professor of physics at Emory, as well as scientists from Georgia State and Stanford universities.

“The ultimate goal is making it possible to devise all-optical computers and telecommunications,” Harutyunyan says.

A major revolution in telecommunications occurred in the 1950s, driven by the development of silicon semiconductors as miniature transistors to control the flow of electrical current. These transistors led to smaller, faster computers and paved the way for everything from flatscreen TVs to cell phones.

“They changed civilization,” Harutyunyan says. “Every year new computers would come out with faster processors as the transistors got tinier and more efficient. But about a decade ago this progress stopped, because these transistors cannot be made any smaller than about 15 nanometers and still function well.”

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