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Photonics – electronics of the 21st century

A moment before Elvis Presley opened the rock’n roll era, and Queen Elisabeth II came to the British throne before Marilyn Monroe successfully proves that “Men prefer blondes”, and the two climbers for the first time ever won Mount Everest, gentlemen of AT & T Bell Labs achieved other, technological peaks. I am thinking of William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattai – three Nobel Prize winners later – who developed the first model of the transistor and gave rise to two areas – electronics and its faster version of photonics. The basic difference is intuitive – in electronic devices the information carrier is an electron, while in photonic photons. What effect do we have? With the help of the second of these small relays, we can send information in sizes and pace, the first of which will never reach. Hence, John S. Mayo, the president of the already mentioned research center, summed up everything with a bold thesis, which however few argue:

Photonics will be in the twenty-first century what electronics was in the 20th century.

Photonic puzzle – optoelectronics and semiconductor crystals

As Wikipedia claims, photonics is the science of light (photon) generation, detection, and manipulation through emission, transmission, modulation, signal processing, switching, amplification, and detection/sensing. Based on this set you can also distinguish optoelectronics – a field where electronics is added to optical equipment. Both regarding devices that use light to acquire, store and transfer information. For her development, apart from the transistor and optical fiber technology, two more older inventions were necessary. The father of the first of them is the current icon of pop culture, a man who if he was born half a century later would be the alpha of physics, and the omega of Facebook and Twitter. Albert Einstein in 1916 discovered the phenomenon of stimulated emission, which half a century later enabled the creation of the first laser. You will learn more about the production of electronic devices and photonics here.

The last element of the photonic puzzle is semiconductor crystals, the Polish accent of the whole story. According to an anecdote, prof. Jan Czochralski, working in the same year as Einstein, made notes and, through absent-mindedness, instead of an inkwell, he immersed the pen nib in the melting tin crucible next to it. Pulling out his pen, he noticed that a thin metal thread was glued to the nib. After studying it with X-rays, he discovered that it is a great crystal and an even better guide. The story closes 30 years later when the already known AT & T Bell Labs uses its invention for the production of silicon monocrystals. Thus, we get the tip with a double happy end – the invention became the foundation for the global electronics industry, and Czochralski became the most recognizable Polish scholar in the world of technology.

Photonic Technology today and tomorrow

Today, it is not surprising that we use ultrabooks, whose dimensions resemble a sheet of paper rather than a classic Mac, but you cannot forget that ENIAC – the first computer in history, considered the innovation peak in its time – weighed 30 tons. It is even more natural to have unlimited contact via smartphons when a landline phone was a luxury 20 years ago. If the smartphone is also the Internet, popularized only in the 90s of the last century, which according to Marshall McLuhan changed our world into a global village. In 2000, it was used by 360 million people, today users are half of humanity – an increase of 800%. We see a tendency, which is based on the development of new technologies, associated today mainly with high-tech. Success in this field can only be achieved by developing unique products with significantly better parameters than those already available on the market. “Less” goes hand in hand with “faster” and possibly “the safest” – perfectly suited to these requirements photonics, which in the pursuit of what the new successively replaces electronics.

Science fiction or real vision

So if electronics is the technology of yesterday, computer science has mastered the modern world, optics is the future, and all together creates photonics – what is it all about? One of many directions is fiber optics. Although they are not a particularly new invention, it is currently the most modern way of sending information. Against the background of other media they are distinguished by the largest range without any disruptions, huge information capacity and resistance to traditional ways of interception. All transmission takes place via light through a wire that is slightly thicker than a human hair.

Technological development from time to time hits its own milestone, which at the same time changes the face of the world. The 21st century is still waiting for its breakthrough, and it cannot be ruled out that it will become a device that Microsoft and Google do not accidentally invest in. If we imagine abstractly large collections, the processing of which would require millions of years, everything will become real when we start talking about the use of a quantum computer. In the assumption of the same activities as a traditional computer – with which only the name connects it – it would take a few seconds. Today difficult to imagine, however, as Einstein said

“If people talked only about what they understand, there would be great silence over the world.”

But does everything actually change? Today we are still listening to Elvis, except on the radio, and on Spotify, we watch movies from Merlin in 4K, and instead of Mount Everest in the winter, we try to enter K2. Only Queen Elizabeth is still exactly the same. The same goes for everything we aspire to. Faster, more, more modern. Information, money, technology. It’s hard to say a stop because the vision of a more comfortable future does not cease to tempt you. Electronics is reaching a stage where its further development will simply not be possible, will anyone wonder if Mayo’s president was right? To be sure, I will repeat his words again. Photonics will be in the 21st century what electronics was in the 20th century.”

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Krzysztof Jakubczak

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