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A data-transmission revolution is underway

News Analysis
Aug 08, 20194 mins

Two radical data transmission ideas are being developed. One uses trions instead of electrons to transmit information, and the other replaces the silicon in semiconductors with other compounds.

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Credit: Getty Images

Radical data communications technologies are in development in a slew of academic scientific labs around the world. While we’ve already seen, and gotten used, to a shift from data sent being over copper wire to light-based, fiber-optic channels (and the resulting capacity and speed increases), much of the thrust by engineers today is in the area of semiconductor improvements, in part to augment those pipes.

The work includes a potential overall shift to photons and light, not wires on chips, and even more revolutionary ideas such as the abandonment of not only silicon, but also the traditional electron.

Electrons aren’t capacious enough

“Most electronics today use individual electrons to conduct electricity and transmit information,” writes Iqbal Pittalwala on the University of California at Riverside news website. Trions, though, are better than electrons for data transmission, the physicists at that university claim.

Why? Electrons, the incumbents, are subatomic particles that are charged and have a surrounding electrical field. They carry electricity and information. However, gate-tunable trions from the quantum family are a spinning, charged combination of two electrons and one hole, or two holes and one electron, depending on polarity, they explain. More, in other words, and enough to carry greater amounts of information than a single electron.

A trion contains three interacting particles, allowing it to carry much more information than a single electron, the researchers say.

“Just like increasing your Wi-Fi bandwidth at home, trion transmission allows more information to come through than individual electrons,” says Erfu Liu in the article. Liu is the first author of the research paper about the work being done.

The researchers plan to test dark trions (harder to do than light trions, but with more capacity) to transport quantum information. It could revolutionize information transmission, the group says.

Dump silicon

Separately, scientists at Cardiff University’s Institute for Compound Semiconductors are adopting an alternative approach to speed up and gain capacity at the semiconductor level. They aim to replace silicon with other variants of atom combinations, the team explains in a press release.

The compound semiconductors they’re working on are like silicon, but they come from elements on either side of silicon on the periodic table, the institute explains in a video presentation of its work. The properties on the wafer are different and thus allow new technologies. Some compound semiconductors are already used in smartphone and other newer technology, but the group says much more can be done in this area.

“Extremely low excess noise and high-sensitivity avalanche photodiodes [have] the potential to yield a new class of high-performance receivers,” says Diana Huffaker, a professor at Cardiff University’s Institute for Compound Semiconductors, on the school’s website. That technology is geared towards applications in fast networking and sensing environments.

The avalanche photodiodes (APDs) that the institute is building create less noise than silicon. APDs are semiconductors that convert light into electricity. Autonomous vehicles’ LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is one use. LIDAR is a way for the vehicle to sense where it is, and it needs very fast communications. “The innovation lies in the advanced materials development to ‘grow’ the compound semiconductor crystal in an atom-by-atom regime,” Huffaker says in the article. Special reactors are needed to do it.

Players are noticing. Huffaker says Airbus may implement the APD technology in a “future free space optics communication system.” Airbus is behind the design and build-out of OneWeb’s planned internet backbone in space. Space laser systems, coming in due course, will have the advantage of performing a capacious data-send without hinderance of interfering air or other earthly environmental limitations—such as digging trenches, making NIMBY-prone planning applications, or implementing latency-increasing repeaters.


Patrick Nelson was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Patrick Nelson and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.