Storing Light at Cornell University

Loraine Lawson

A few weekends ago, my family went camping and tried to capture lightning bugs. This is not as easy as I remember. Every time you thought you'd cornered one and just needed it to blink one more time, it would circle around and pop up someplace completely different.


That experience makes me somewhat empathetic with researchers trying to capture and contain light.


Okay, you're right. It's not really the same. Lightning bugs are much harder to catch, particularly if you're no longer 12.


I can say this with undue confidence because, as it turns out, Cornell University researchers have created a microscopic device for storing light. Neither I nor my husband, on the other hand, captured even one lightning bug.


Everybody knows why you want to store lightning bugs. But why would you want to store light? Elementary, my dear reader. The ability to store light could substantially speed up optical communications and computing.


Right now, optical communications works by converting light pulses into electrons and back again. But if you could store actual light, you could skip this step, allowing light to be used in routing and in communication between computer chips.


The trick has been capturing the light. Just like my blinking bug friends, the light quickly enters and then circles around, escaping through the very point of capture. Cornell's device uses a 1.5 picosecond pulse of light to open and close the entryway, thus capturing the light. There's a bit more to it than that, and of course the research team needs to do some more work to make it commercially viable, but you can read the details for yourself in the Technology Review article.


It's impressive work, but I'm willing to bet my four-year-old would be much more excited by a mayonnaise jar capable of capturing lightning bugs within a 1.5 picosecond.

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