For the first time ever, scientists have stored light-based information as sound waves on a computer chip – something the researchers compare to capturing lightning as thunder.

While that might sound a little strange, this conversion is critical if we ever want to shift from our current, inefficient electronic computers, to light-based computersthat move data at the speed of light.

Light-based or photonic computers have the potential to run at least 20 times faster than your laptop, not to mention the fact that they won’t produce heat or suck up energy like existing devices.

This is because they, in theory, would process data in the form of photons instead of electrons.

We say in theory, because, despite companies such as IBM and Intel pursuing light-based computing, the transition is easier said than done.

Coding information into photons is easy enough – we already do that when we send information via optical fibre.

But finding a way for a computer chip to be able to retrieve and process information stored in photons is tough for the one thing that makes light so appealing: it’s too damn fast for existing microchips to read.

This is why light-based information that flies across internet cables is currently converted into slow electrons. But a better alternative would be to slow down the light and convert it into sound.

And that’s exactly what researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia have now done.

“The information in our chip in acoustic form travels at a velocity five orders of magnitude slower than in the optical domain,” said project supervisor Birgit Stiller.

“It is like the difference between thunder and lightning.”Light stored as sound?

This means that computers could have the benefits of data delivered by light – high speeds, no heat caused by electronic resistance, and no interference from electromagnetic radiation – but would also be able to slow that data down enough so that computers chips could do something useful with it.

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