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Integration of fibre optics and solar energy in computers

By Jean-Claude Elias - Mar 01,2018 - Last updated at Mar 01,2018

There is a first recurring question in the world of technology and it is about Fibre Optics (FO). Given the strong push for FO in telecommunications and Internet everywhere, and given the extraordinary difference in transmission speeds between optical cables and copper wires, why is the industry not yet using optical wiring inside computers, tablets and smartphones? Surely, this would make them run much faster, while consuming significantly less power.

The second recurring question is about solar energy, and in a way it goes in parallel with the first. Is not it time that portable computers, tablets and smartphones be powered by solar energy? With the huge progress achieved in photovoltaic cells leading to excellent efficiency and performance, one would think that replacing a smartphone’s traditional battery with photovoltaic cells would be child’s play.

The truth is that none of the above is as simple as it may look. Naturally, there will come a day when, with optical cabling inside and powered by solar energy, the computer of the future will make the laptop we are using today as ridiculously obsolete as your first not-so-smart-phone that you had in the mid-1990s would look today. This is not going to happen overnight, however.

Optical cables shine (no pun intended) when used particularly over networks and long distances. This, for now at least, is the perfect, ideal field of application for the technology. Despite their obvious and many advantages, they too have some inherent weaknesses. They are more fragile than copper wires, simply because they are made of… glass! They tend to break. They are also difficult to cut, “weld” and manipulate, in a general manner. Last but not least, they are still more expensive than copper.

There are also other considerations pertaining to specific digital electronic circuitry that prevent optical cables to be used instead of copper. Therefore, to have a computer, tablet or smartphone where optical cables completely replace copper, we will have to wait until more than one simple technological revolution takes place.

Solar energy, on the other hand, may be a less complex issue, but here to there is still some way to go before we can own a smartphone or a laptop computer that would fully run on solar energy, like those great desk calculators that have become the norm and never need batteries, or at the other extreme of examples, like Solar Impulse, the celebrated Swiss pioneering solar-powered aircraft.

Leading manufacturers like Panasonic, SunPower or LG have recently achieved amazing rates of efficiency with their photovoltaic panels. The first two have reached an efficiency of 20.2 per cent, whereas LG has a good 18.3 per cent. Most other manufacturers are still around an average of 14.5 per cent.

Tesla, the famous American maker of electric cars and the brainchild of the equally famous Elon Musk, has announced that they are planning to make roof tiles that also work as solar panels! Definitely another milestone on the road to universal solar power for houses.

No one can foretell if the next giant step that will put optical cables inside digital devices and make them run on solar energy will take place in 10, 20 years or more. Less than 10 does not sound reasonable, but who knows, technology is full of surprises.

In the meantime, smartphones makers manage to keep us interested with more and more sophisticated cameras.

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