Optical processing gets a boost from US defence research grant

Cambridge University spin-out Optalysys has been awarded a $350k grant for a 13-month project from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The project will allow the company to advance its research in developing their optical co-processing technology to solving complex mathematical equations.

The Optalysys technology is extremely energy efficient, using light rather than electricity to perform intensive mathematical calculations. The company aims to provide existing computer systems with a large increase to their processing capabilities – with the aim to eventually reach exaflop scale systems capable of a billion calculations per second.

Nick New, CEO and Founder of Optalysys said: ‘We are reaching the limits of what traditional silicon-based processors can deliver. Moore’s Law is breaking down and traditional computing methods are approaching their limits in terms of cost and capability.’ 

This technology could be of great interest to the HPC industry as the technology operates at a fraction of the energy cost of conventional HPC systems and optical based processing has the potential to operate at orders of magnitude faster performance.

New explained while the technology is new to the computing industry it is based on well-established principals of optical technology. New said: ‘The Optalysys technology is built on Fourier and Diffractive optics but we use them in combination with advanced high-resolution micro-displays. We are creating a cost-effective solution that can be scaled beyond the levels of traditional electrical computers and can be integrated with existing desktop and HPC architectures.’

The project’s goal is to lay the groundwork for producing optical processing systems that are capable of high-end tasks used in computational fluid dynamic simulation models such as direct numerical simulation and large eddy simulation. These equations are relevant to large-scale scientific and engineering simulations such as weather prediction and aerodynamics.

‘We are developing the technology specifically to help speed up research and analysis for organisations that are trying to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems so having the chance to work with DARPA in this way is an exciting step forward for us,’ concluded New.

The Optalysys technology is currently developed to Technology Readiness Level 5 (TRL5), and is being developed for use primarily in the field of genetic sequencing, as part of a UK government funded project in collaboration with The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) in Norwich, UK. 

Optalysys was founded in 2013. The forerunning technology was developed by CEO Nick New, an expert in optical pattern recognition, while completing his PhD at Cambridge University. The Optalysys team includes specialists in software development, Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), free-space optics, optical engineering and production engineering.

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