It may not look much, but this tiny piece of etched silicon could make our computers way faster. Designed to split and direct light, it could allow computers to trade electrons for photons—and gain a jump in speed in the process.

"Light can carry more data than a wire, and it takes less energy to transmit photons than electrons," explains Professor Jelena Vuckovic, who created this little device. But while we can happily pipe photons through fiber, manipulating them is a little more difficult—which is why your fiber stops and electricity takes over.

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But this piece of silicon is specially etched so that it can split waves of light like a small-scale prism.The gaps within the silicon are etched in such a way as to send light of different wavelengths in different directions—taking, for instance, information in two different directions—creating what's known as an optical link. Different links can be designed easily and then etched, in order to piece together more elaborate networks to manipulate light beams and send them in different directions.

The long-term hope, as you may have guessed, is to create a computer that runs entirely on light: photonic computer chips. While that's a long way off, small links like this are at least making it increasingly likely. [Nature via Stanford via Engadget]