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A long-standing quest for science and technology has been to develop electronics and information processing that operate near the fastest timescales allowed by the laws of nature.

A promising way to achieve this goal involves using to guide the motion of electrons in matter, and then using this control to develop electronic circuit elements—a concept known as lightwave electronics.

Remarkably, lasers currently allow us to generate bursts of electricity on femtosecond timescales—that is, in a millionth of a billionth of a second. Yet our ability to process information in these ultrafast timescales has remained elusive.

Now, researchers at the University of Rochester and the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have made a decisive step in this direction by demonstrating a logic gate—the building block of computation and information processing—that operates at femtosecond timescales. The feat, reported in the journal Nature, was accomplished by harnessing and independently controlling, for the first time, the real and virtual charge carriers that compose these ultrafast bursts of electricity.

The researchers' advances have opened the door to information processing at the petahertz limit, where one quadrillion computational operations can be processed per second. That is almost a million times faster than today's computers operating with gigahertz clock rates, where 1 petahertz is 1 million gigahertz.

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