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An End to the World Wide Wait?

By Fenella SaundersFebruary 1, 2001 6:00 AM


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If your Internet access is a lot slower than you'd like, don't blame Bill Gates— blame atomic physics. Fiber-optic cables can carry torrents of information around the world in a fraction of a second. But getting the data into your home computer requires making a connection between fiber, which carries light, and silicon circuits, which carry electricity. The laws of physics do not encourage such connections.

William Gillin, a physicist at Queen Mary, University of London, may have hit on a way to get around the rules. In the past, researchers tried depositing light-emitting material on top of silicon chips. Electrical signals from the chips were supposed to excite the overlying layers and translate those signals into corresponding flashes of light. The atomic structure of the materials that give off light is incompatible with silicon, however, and the devices cracked and failed. So Gillin and his colleagues tried something very different: organic light-emitting diodes made of carbon-based compounds.

"The organics are an amorphous muck. You can deposit them on anything," Gillin says. When he coated diode material on a silicon chip, he created a hybrid that effectively converts electrical signals to light signals. The one shortcoming is that the hybrid consumes a lot of power. If he can improve the efficiency, telecommunications companies will no longer have any excuse not to offer cheap, extremely high-speed Internet access. The companies currently rely on costly, complicated connections to link wire and fiber. "If you can do it all on one chip, you can reduce the cost to next to nothing," Gillin says.

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