Intel splits light to speed chips

IDF: A breakthrough in creating a silicon-based fast photonic modulator could mean faster, cheaper data connections in future

Intel has developed a method to marry silicon and photonics, potentially increasing the speed computer chips communicate with each other.

Intel scientists split a light beam into two separate beams by passing it through silicon. They then used a transistor-like device to hit one beam with an electric charge, inducing a "phase shift" -- effectively moving the light wave along a bit -- so that when the two light beams recombined the light is turned on and off at over one gigahertz (one billion bits of data per second), 50 times faster than previously produced on silicon.

Photonics, that branch of physics that deals with transmitting information using light waves, is seen as the next step in the journey of ever-faster computers and data transfer. However, optical devices have typically been made from exotic materials such as gallium arsenide and indium phosphide, which are difficult to manufacture and therefore expensive. Silicon is cheap and companies have a great deal of experience in manipulating it.

The ability to build a fast photonic (fibre optic) modulator from silicon could lead to low-cost, high-bandwidth fibre-optic connections between PCs, servers and other electronic devices, and eventually between chips inside computers as well. Australians are also working on developing photonic communication between computer chips. Earlier this year the Australian Photonics Cooperative Research Centre announced they had developed fibre optic cable suitable for chip-to-chip communication.

"This is a significant step toward building optical devices that move data around inside a computer at the speed of light," said Patrick Gelsinger, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Intel. "It is the kind of breakthrough that ripples across an industry over time enabling other new devices and applications.

"It could help make the Internet run faster, build much faster high performance computers and enable high bandwidth applications like ultra high definition displays or vision recognition systems," said Gelsinger.