A super-fast computing processor that uses light, not electrons, to perform calculations has gone on sale for the first time.
Lenslet, the Israeli company that developed the processor, said its light-speed calculations deliver the power of a supercomputer in a single device.
The device, called Enlight, can perform 8,000 billion arithmetic operations a second - about 1,000 times faster than a standard processor. Previously this type of processor was only available to highly financed government laboratories, said Lenslet's founder, Aviram Sariel.
He believes Enlight will be useful across a broad range of applications, from military projects to compressing high-definition video images. Sariel acknowledged that Enlight was not a general-purpose processor. Instead, each processor will be custom-built to perform a specific set of tasks and will not be programmable.
Much research has been done to try to exploit the much faster speed at which light travels compared to electronic signals, but most commercial work in this area has focused on optical interfaces. These devices allow fibre optic and related systems to communicate with traditional electronic systems.
Enlight is a hybrid device, housing both electronic and optical circuits, but it is the optical processing that makes it so fast. Sariel said, "It allows you to do a massive level of operations in parallel."
Derryck Reid, part of the ultrafast optics group at Scotland's Heriot Watt University, said it may still be some time before we have fully optical devices. "Fully optical processors are still very much at the basic component level," he said.
Reid said he has not heard of any other commercially available optical processors, but he added that with these kinds of hybrid devices there is a fine distinction between performing calculations like a processor and processing light signals like a telecoms switching circuit. The latter are also being developed.
The processing in the Enlight device is carried out using a process called vector matrix-multiplication, which allows calculations to be performed on 256 optical inputs.
The beams from 256 lasers are either added or multiplied together when shone on a matrix device called a spatial light modulator. The outputs are then read by an array of light detectors.
Lenslet would not put a precise figure on how much an Enlight processor would cost because each will be made to order, but a spokeswoman said it would be in the region of tens of thousands of dollars.
This article first appeared in New Scientist