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Lithium niobate chips: the future of light-based technologies?

Story Highlights
  • The rise of lithium niobate chips in light-based technologies
  • Potential applications of lithium niobate chips, from lunar navigation to fruit detection
  • The future outlook for lithium niobate chip technology and its impact on various industries.

Scientists predict that lithium niobate chips will surpass silicon chips in light-based technologies. These extremely thin chips have a wide range of potential applications, from detecting ripe fruit from a distance on Earth to guiding navigation on the Moon. The artificial crystal of lithium niobate is the preferred platform for these technologies due to its superior performance and advancements in manufacturing techniques.

The rise of lithium niobate chips in light-based technologies

RMIT University’s Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell and University of Adelaide’s Dr. Andy Boes led a team of global experts to review lithium niobate’s capabilities and potential applications in the journal Science. The international team, including scientists from Peking University in China and Harvard University in the United States, is working with industry to develop navigation systems to help rovers drive on the Moon later this decade. As it is impossible to use global positioning system (GPS) technology on the Moon, navigation systems in lunar rovers will need to use an alternative system, which is where the team’s innovation comes in.

Potential applications of lithium niobate chips, from lunar navigation to fruit detection

The lithium-niobate chip can measure movement without needing external signals by detecting tiny changes in laser light. The same technology could also be used for linking the internet on the Moon to the internet on Earth. Lithium niobate is an artificial crystal discovered in 1949 but is “back in vogue” due to its superior capabilities. Silicon was the material of choice for electronic circuits, but its limitations have become increasingly apparent in photonics. Lithium niobate has come back into vogue because of its superior capabilities, and advances in manufacturing mean that it is now readily available as thin films on semiconductor wafers.

The team is working with the Australian company Advanced Navigation to create optical gyroscopes, where laser light is launched in clockwise and anticlockwise directions in a fiber coil. The team’s photonic chips are sensitive enough to measure the tiny difference in the coil’s length and use it to determine how the coil is moving. If you can track your movements, you know where you are relative to where you started. This is called inertial navigation.

The future outlook for lithium niobate chip technology and its impact on various industries.

This technology can also be used to detect the ripeness of fruit remotely. Gas emitted by ripe fruit is absorbed by light in the mid-infrared part of the spectrum. A drone hovering in an orchard would transmit light to another, which would sense the degree to which the light is absorbed and when the fruit is ready for harvesting.

Australia could become a global hub for manufacturing integrated photonic chips from lithium niobate that would have a major impact on applications in technology that use every part of the spectrum of light. Photonic chips can now transform industries well beyond optical fiber communications.

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