The basics of digital logic are pretty easy to master, and figuring out how the ones and zeroes flow through various kinds of gates is often an interesting exercise. Taking things down a level and breaking the component AND, OR, and NOR gates down to their underlying analog circuits adds some complexity, but the flow of electrons is still pretty understandable. Substitute all that for photons, though, and you’ll enter a strange world indeed.
At least that’s our take on [Jeroen Vleggaar]’s latest project, which is making logic gates from purely optical components. As he himself admits in the video below, this isn’t exactly unexplored territory, but his method, which uses constructive and destructive interference, seems not to have been used before. The basic “circuit” consists of a generator, a pair of diffraction patterns etched into a quartz plate, and an evaluator, which is basically a pinhole in another plate positioned to coincide with the common focal point of the generator patterns. An OR gate is formed when the two generators are hit with in-phase monochromatic light. Making the two inputs out of phase by 180° results in an XOR gate, as destructive interference between the two inputs prevents any light from making it out of the evaluator.
All seven basic gates are possible using variations of this technique, but of course, actually building such things poses challenges. The microscopic manufacturing techniques, including photolithography and etching patterns on thin metal coatings, are pretty non-trivial. And while [Jeroen] was able to construct a few basic gates and test them, there’s still a long way to go. He says that he needs to add both input beam controls — LCD shutters, perhaps — as well as output detection.
The potential applications of this are pretty exciting, and we’ll be staying tuned for details. For deeper background on the dual nature of light and how interference patterns form, check out [Jeroen]’s explanation of the double-slit experiment.