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Japanese scientists slow down light

Photons of light are trapped by silicon crystals

While the rest of the world winds down, Japan's scientists appear to be gearing up for a seasonal R&D extravaganza . The latest intriguing news from the labs concerns the mysterious world of light photons and their future uses in computers.

Researchers at NTT Photonics have performed the impressive trick of slowing down light itself by trapping it momentarily inside silicon crystals. The crystals they created to do so are riddled with holes on the nano scale that actually trap photons of light in gaps smaller than ten millionths of a metre.

The result is a beam of light that travels at just 5.8 kilometres per second (km/s), compared to its normal vacuum speed of almost 300,000 km/s. Impressive indeed but what, you might ask, is the point of it?

In current computers, processing speed and, therefore, their overall power and ability is limited by the speed of electrons moving through silicon. One of the advantages of so-called quantum computers that use light photons to carry data instead will be a manifold leap in speed. In other words, PCs that might just be able to handle Windows Vista, Service Pack 87, some time around 2056. J Mark Lytle