The Buggy Future Of Computer Chips

Amazonian beetles, to be more precise. Researchers have long understood that if they could produce a photonic crystal, a diamond-like structure that would allow light to be shunted around inside instead of electricity, that they would be able to make superfast optical computers that used little power and wouldn't generate heat the way your current chip does. They could even envision the structure necessary, they just couldn't produce it. But then someone noticed that the iridescent scales of a lowly beetle had the structure they were seeking all along.

When the researchers scoped the scales, they noticed something strange: No matter the angle of viewing, the scales always appeared in the same shade of green.

That's unusual for iridescent surfaces, which derive their color from light refracted through semi-transparent layers. Further study revealed that the quality came from the scales' molecular arrangement, which had the same pattern as the atoms of carbon in a diamond.

Diamonds themselves are too dense to serve as photonic crystals, but researchers long ago identified their configuration as perfectly suited for manipulating light in a three-dimensional space.

"You can take the light, criss-cross it and it doesn't interfere. It allows you to build more complex and compact architectures," said Paul Braun, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign photonic crystal specialist. The crystals' transmission purity would also eliminate waste heat generated by traditional electron-based circuits. That heat is a limiting factor on traditional microchip capacities.

So perhaps in the future you'll be able to put a big horseshoe magnet on the side of your computer tower, but you won't be able to shine a flashlight into the case. OK. As always: faster, please.