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Information: More Speed Always Needed

Meanwhile, Shur, who has earned a long list of awards in microelectronics, has turned his attention to the question of how to obtain more speed from computers that are already operating near the limits set by the laws of physics.

Roland Kersting

Roland Kersting came to campus in 1999 as assistant professor of physics, and he later earned a joint appointment in information technology. He leads one of the few groups in the world that is successfully building demonstration prototypes of terahertz-speed electronic devices. Photo by Mark McCarty

Waves of energy travel more quickly than physical objects, he says, explaining the principle behind the “electronic flutes” that his group is developing. These are solid-state devices in which signals are carried not by electrons but by plasma waves, waves of electron density that travel at THz speeds. His team has successfully demonstrated a field effect transistor that operates as a detector in the THz range, and they are working on emitters.

Collaborating with Zhang and Kersting has been enormously helpful, he says, because of their experience in working with THz-speed devices.

Many look to optical glass connections to provide the path to faster computer chips, but Kersting says the semiconductor industry is not experienced at working with glass. In many cases, plasma wave electronics have an advantage because signals can be propagated on metal lines.

While Shur is working on emitters and detectors, Kersting concentrates on other THz electronic structures such as modulators. Explaining the function of these devices, Kersting says that light shining from a bulb does not carry data, but you can create a coded message by repeatedly flipping the light switch up and down. After plasma waves stream from Shur’s emitters, they must be shaped into messages by modulators and switches. Kersting has demonstrated prototypes of THz modulators that are essential for future THz information processing. His group also has fabricated THz differentiators, which derive the first time-derivative of any signal at THz speed.

“We are not building a THz computer,” Kersting says. “You would need a few thousand more physicists. We are doing university research, exploring basic physics and trying to give proof of our concepts. Once we do that, industry may come in and take over.”

Another area of Kersting’s research may contribute someday to the development of a quantum computer, a system that would work by the laws of quantum rather than conventional physics. His interest in the basic science behind this possible breakthrough began while he was conducting postdoctoral research at the Technical University of Vienna, Austria, where he became interested in unique semiconductor crystal structures grown there. His discovery that these structures emit THz radiation led him into the THz field.

These unusual crystals behave like artificial quantum systems, with all electrons acting as if the structure is one big atom. They appear to fulfill all the requirements of a quantum computer, he says. He is working with his former colleagues in Vienna to learn more about the basic physics behind their behavior.

Ingrid Wilke

Ingrid Wilke, assistant professor of physics, came to Rensselaer in May 2002 from the University of Hamburg, where she applied terahertz and ultra-fast spectroscopy to applications involving high-temperature superconductors, semiconductors, and accelerator physics. Photo by Gary Gold

World Leaders

The professional journal Opto & Laser Europe reported in October 2002: “Although the majority of the initial research on terahertz imaging was carried out by Martin Nuss and colleagues at Bell Labs in the early 1990s, today the leading research group in the field is undoubtedly [the] group at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, U.S. For more than a decade, the group has been pushing back the frontiers of terahertz technology and has published a huge number of papers on the topic.”

During the last several years, scientists and engineers from 75 universities, companies, medical schools, and clinics have visited Rensselaer’s THz facilities, and the THz team has helped scientists from 18 countries learn to use the technology.

Rensselaer is investing heavily in the THz Center, providing 5,000 square feet of laboratory space for a new THz laboratory in the Low Center for Industrial Innovation as well as substantial money for renovation and equipment. The Institute also will add three new faculty positions in this field in the next four years and will increase the number of postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduate students studying in the field.

“We are committed to building the necessary infrastructure to keep our terahertz research at the forefront,” says Arthur Sanderson, vice president for research. “Our goal is to make this a world-class university with the best faculty, the best students, and the best equipment, and the Terahertz Center is performing at that level.”

As the THz Center grows, its researchers will work on many more frontiers of science. Zhang, for example, would like to add an expert in molecular spintronics, a field in which nanoscale-dimension devices use electron spin as well as charge to control electrical conduction. Wang suggests that more biologists will become involved, as well as more THz electronics specialists.

One thing is certain, she says, in a field in which new research teams are rapidly forming around the world. “To stay Number One, you have to grow.”

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Rensselaer Magazine: March 2003
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
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