A sampling of some of the world's top optics experts attending the seventh international Near-Field Optics conference at the University of Rochester this week overwhelmingly predicted that near-field optics, a way to image structures just a few billionths of a meter in size, will dramatically expand the capacity of CD- and hard drive-type storage media in less than 10 years, with the majority predicting as soon as 2005.
Most of the researchers also said that between 5 years and 10 years from now near-field techniques would allow powerful medical diagnosis such as identifying individual bacteria by directly imaging the molecular makeup of their cell walls-and that near-field optics would help usher in an age of nanotechnology, machines built of just a few hundred molecules.
Magnetic writing, the kind of technology currently used in computer hard drives, will soon reach a storage ceiling. The maximum number of bits per square inch that a hard drive can hold is about 200 billion. Using near-field optical techniques, however, engineers could potentially raise that storage density more than ten-fold to over a trillion bits per square inch.
"As we continue to miniaturize technology and pack more and more into smaller spaces, we will be trying to read patterns that are so small that conventional means of reading them will be impossible," says conference organizer Lukas Novotny, assistant professor of optics at the University of Rochester. "Near-field optics can recognize smaller patterns than almost any conventional method in use today. It's already being used to peek at structures just a few billionths of a meter across."
Near-field optics is the study of "seeing" objects as small as 50 million times thinner than a hair, objects so tiny that light cannot bounce off them. Light travels in waves, but trying to see objects smaller than the length of a single wave is like trying to pick up a sesame seed with a fork-if the tines or waves were much closer together you might be able to catch the seed. Unfortunately, there is a practical limit to how closely light waves can be spaced, and thus how small an object they can illuminate. By measuring the way light behaves near the smallest structures, researchers can build images of them, such as the proteins that make up the membrane of a single cell or the transistors in the next generation of computers.
The Near-Field Optics conferences are the principal forum for the advancement of sub-wavelengths optics, near-field optical microscopy, instrumental developments, and the ever-increasing range of applications. The conference brings together the diverse scientific communities working on the theory and application of near-field optics and related techniques. Physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers are joining forces to observe, understand, and control nanometer scale structures and events through the use of near-field optics. Of the approximately 250 scientists who attended, 72 participated in the survey.
The conference was hosted by the University of Rochester's Institute of Optics.