Getting Rich from Military Technology, Part II
The Russian and the Frenchman
First, let’s return to Mendeleev and his missing elements. Why were there gaps in his table? Did the Russian scientist make errors in arranging the elements? Or, based on the gaps, were these apparently “missing elements” key to another aspect of chemistry?
Mendeleev was perplexed, but he also anticipated that something novel would happen. Back in those days, chemistry was a fast-evolving field of science, with many great minds applied to the hardest challenges. (It still is, actually.) Somewhere, someone would figure out the reason for the gaps in Mendeleev’s table.
Mendeleev left space in his table of the elements. He predicted that the missing substances were likely somewhere out in nature, but yet to be discovered and isolated. Indeed, in 1871, Mendeleev postulated the existence of a yet-undiscovered element. He named it “eka-aluminium” (using the Russian form of spelling) because of its proximity to aluminum on his proto periodic table.
A few years later, in 1875, a French scientist, Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, discovered the substance that had eluded Mendeleev and named it gallium — after Gaul (Gallia, in Latin), the ancient Roman name of what is now France.
De Boisbaudran had a hard time isolating his first samples of gallium. In one of his early efforts, de Boisbaudran used nearly 700 pounds of zinc-bearing sphalerite ore from the Pyrenees mountains to isolate about 1 gram of gallium. It was quite a messy, complex process.
Since the 1870s, isolating gallium has become an easier task. Today, gallium is produced as a byproduct of aluminum and zinc production. Aluminum and zinc are — no surprise to the chemists out there — atomic neighbors of gallium on our modern periodic chart. Gallium is also right next to two other elements with intriguing properties, indium and germanium.
Still, gallium is not at all a common element these days. It’s scarce, and its uses are high-end. Such as? Well, there’s a compound called gallium arsenide (GaAs), which is a semiconductor. And now allow me to get technical for a moment.
Basically, semiconductors conduct electricity, but not in an open manner, such as how copper wire conducts electricity to, say, a light bulb. With a copper wire, electricity moves like a car driving down a smooth street, with no bumps. It’s just a nice, clean ride through the wire. Put another way, nothing interesting happens to the electrons as they move.
But with semiconductors? It’s like driving down a street covered with speed bumps interspersed with potholes. You bump up, you bump down. You feel the ride. That’s sort of what happens to electricity in a semiconductor as well, except it’s a good thing for electrical and electronic engineers that the ride is so bumpy. That’s the trick, in fact.
Semiconductors move current through things called “holes,” or charge carriers. Basically, you can fill a hole with an electron or leave it empty. Got that? It’s full or empty. Or consider a light switch that’s on or off. Mathematically, it’s a one (“1”) or a zero (“0”). Do you see where this is going?
Actually, it’s going into the realm of quantum physics, but for our purposes, let’s just understand that semiconductors control binary digital computing. Semiconductors wind up in all manner of computer chips, microwave frequency integrated circuits (ICs), monolithic microwave ICs, infrared light-emitting diodes, solar cells and lasers. Most of the world’s semiconductors are made out of silicon, but not all.
Optical Electronics in America
Back in the 1980s, a brilliant scientist named Geoffrey Taylor worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey. Among other things, he researched optical systems and semiconductors, including the above-noted gallium arsenide. It’s a long story, but Dr. Taylor left Bell Labs and took a job at the University of Connecticut, at Storrs.
Along the way, Dr. Taylor scrounged much of his former equipment from Bell Labs and hauled it to Storrs. He also picked up all manner of equipment from other corporate and government labs when they downsized during the serial tech crashes of the past two decades. In essence, Dr. Taylor has a full-up semiconductor materials research lab and fabrication center at UConn. (I’ve been there.)
Dr. Taylor then put together a team based on optical technologies through which to pursue his research.
A Busted Solar Power Play
A few years ago, they began to work on solar power systems using gallium arsenide. Basically, with solar, the sunlight hits the panel and the photons — the light particles — go into the semiconductor material. The photons stimulate electricity, which is why solar panels generate power. Light goes in, electricity comes out. So far, so good.
It’s a long story, but you likely know that the solar space has developed a reputation for uneconomic business efforts — Solyndra and all. So it wasn’t too long before Dr. Taylor and colleagues realized that they were barking up the wrong tree, businesswise. In terms of making things work, the solar business is just too competitive for some cutting-edge ideas just now, what with the Chinese flooding the world with super-cheap materials and equipment. Still, the team had their gallium arsenide material and they learned a few things from the solar research.
Hey, a Laser Beam!
Like what, you wonder? Well, forgive me if I oversimplify it, because — I assure you — it’s truly complex quantum science. Instead of the “light goes in, electricity comes out” pathway, what if you reverse the flow? That is, put electricity into the gallium arsenide and out comes light. Hey, that sounds like a laser beam. And what a laser beam!
Fast-forward to now. The team has evolved the idea by a country mile. But the truth is that the team is still more in a research mode.
This is a seriously high-tech idea, with all the issues and risks that come with such things.
Using Light for New Purposes
They’ve developed a next-generation gallium arsenide semiconductor device, incorporating a technology called POET (Planar Opto Electronic Technology). POET allows the integration of optics and electronics on a single chip, which is the breakthrough.
So what are we talking about? With conventional semiconductors, like silicon, you can move electrons, but not photons (light particles), which are much smaller. But by developing the ability to handle photons, with gallium arsenide, you’re opening up entirely new capabilities.
First, with photons, you can now move down truly to the level of quantum computing — literally at the atomic level. This is important, because modern computing is at the edge of capabilities with electrons and bulky old silicon. If you know what “Moore’s law” is — long story — we’re about to see the last chapter written. So gallium arsenide is the next great leap for technology, setting computing up for the next 50 years or so.
According to Dr. Taylor, POET is a “disruptive technology” within many commercial and government markets. It overcomes critical problems for all manner of tasks, starting with the physical size and energy limitations of silicon chips.
In fact, the benefits of POET are analogous to what occurred with the first silicon integrated circuits, except now we see the improvement down at the atomic level, versus the much larger scales of silicon technology.
In practice, POET eliminates connectors, solder joints, assembly and multiple packaging steps. It decreases the size of a computer chip, as well as cost, complexity and power consumption. How about dramatically smaller supercomputers, which don’t require air conditioners the size of a railway car?
At the same time, POET technology is versatile. It’s possible to integrate POET with incumbent silicon tech. Thus, while POET is revolutionary, it’s also compatible with much of the world’s existing capabilities. In other words, POET does not require a brand-new “tech ecosystem” if it is to gain market traction.
Military Apps — Even Vampire-Killers
POET immediately addresses the requirements of numerous military development and procurement programs for improved sensors, faster and more secure communications, improved memory and storage and overall computing power. There’s no end to the transformation in computing power, imaging, target definition, signals intelligence and more that we could see from this.
What else? Well, looking out into the future, POET chips can generate coherent light beams — like laser light — with very small inputs of power. So imagine, say, a ship with a phased array radar that can lock onto a fast-moving object while a “smart skin” on the hull literally weaponizes and emits laser light precisely onto the target. Star Trek, anyone? Well, we’re not there yet, but people are working on it. It’s a vampire killer. Eventually.
Mendeleev’s “missing element” now forms the foundation to a host of new breakthroughs that can revolutionize the world of digital computing and change the nature of weaponry and war.
The tech is so new that, as I’ve described, it’s scarcely out of the lab. Where will it go? Well, if you had asked that question about, say, silicon chips, back in the 1960s or 1970s, could you have envisioned what is happening today? This idea can go anywhere, and I suspect that means it will go far.
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