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"Hooked On Photonics" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Purdue University researchers have developed a miniature device capable of converting ultrafast laser pulses into bursts of radio-frequency signals, a step toward making wires obsolete for communications in homes and offices of the future.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Welcome to (SOUND EFFECT: electrical noise -- acoustic guitar strum) "Unplugged."

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

You know that bundle of wires under your computer desk? If Purdue researchers have their way, those wires could become obsolete. They're working on having devices communicate wirelessly through the science of "photonics."

(SOUND EFFECT: garage door opening) The reason this wireless technology is different from say, your garage door opener -- is that more than a simple radio frequency is used. (SOUND EFFECT: radio frequency sound) Since radio signals are prone to interference, the team found you can get more dependable results if you start with ultra-fast laser light pulses and convert them into bursts of radio frequency signals.

To do that, the researchers sent light pulses through an array of mirrors, lenses and other devices on a table several feet long. Amazingly, using nanotechnology, they were then able to (SOUND EFFECT: shrinking sound) shrink the size of those bulk optics by several thousand times to be able to fit on a computer chip.

Before you start throwing out your USB cables, we're at least 5 years away from a practical system that uses photonics. But when we do get there, all the communications in your house -- from HD TV signals to secure computer connections -- could be transmitted from a single base station. Printers and monitors might no longer be connected by wires, and even components in your car could communicate with each other this way.

'Til then, we'll still be tangled in technology.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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