What could it all mean to end users? Being able to " buffer " light will actually make true optical routing possible. This could mean a reduction in network complexity, which could result in cost savings. Converting traffic from optical to electrical and back to optical is much less elegant than routing traffic optically. It also means that traffic will be able to be switched much faster than ever before with more even more capacity.
Phillips adds, "There are still a bunch of physics issues to understand before you start engineering it into a box." Experiments that take place at very low temperatures -- like the work at Harvard-Smithsonian -- are useful in this respect because they are a lot easier to understand from a physics perspective."
Pretty soon, it should be possible to store light in solid materials, as well as in gases. "For real applications, solid state is where you'll think about doing things," notes Phillips. In fact, he believes that researchers are already submitting proposals to do these experiments -- storing light -- inside doped optical fiber.