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The IBM team succeeded using a photonic crystal waveguide, a thin slab of silicon punctuated by regular arrays of holes that scatter light. The pattern and size of the holes gives the material a very high refractive index -- the higher the refractive index, the slower the light. Heating the waveguide locally with a small electrical current alters the refractive index, allowing the speed of light to be quickly tuned over a large range with very low applied electric power.
The active area of the IBM device is microscopically small, indicating the possibility of complex light-based circuits with footprints not much larger than semiconductor circuits. The manufacturing processes used to build the device are available in nearly any semiconductor factory. The capabilities demonstrated in today's Nature article could be applied to create a variety of nanophotonic components such as optical delay lines, optical buffers and even optical memory, all of which would be useful in building computer systems knitted together by powerful optical communications networks.
The report on this work, "Active control of slow light on a chip with photonic crystal waveguides" by Yurii A. Vlasov, Martin O'Boyle, Hendrik F. Hamann, and Sharee J. McNab of IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. is published in the November 3 issue of Nature. This work was partially supported by the Defense advanced Research Agency (DARPA) through the Defense Sciences Office program "Slowing, Storing and Processing Light".