Nanolasers grown on silicon, next generation of computers and sensors

Nanolasers on silicon could bring on faster computers and better sensors.

The nano-copper wires in your computer can't process data as fast as light particles can. That's the problem researchers have been trying to crack for some time.

If light can somehow be integrated into circuits, then the processing of microprocessors would improve. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley might get us closer to integrating lasers with electronics.

The scientists figured out how to grow nanolasers on silicon, using a technique commonly used to create light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Researchers have been trying to make chips out of a mix of semiconductor materials, so silicon can transmit light better.

However, typically lasers and electronics are a physical misfit. One of the researchers, Roger Chen, explained in a statement:

Growing III-V semiconductor films on silicon is like forcing two incongruent puzzle pieces together. It can be done, but the material gets damaged in the process.

That's why the researchers used nanopillars made from indium gallium arsenide on silicon, and created cylinders that can make laser beams. When an external light shines on the nanopillars, it turns it into a laser. In the real-world, the nanolasers would have to produce their own light.

UC Berkeley professor Connie Chang-Hasnain said in a statement:

Today’s massive silicon electronics infrastructure is extremely difficult to change for both economic and technological reasons, so compatibility with silicon fabrication is critical.

The nanolasers were grown in a cool temperature, giving it a leg up from other methods that require hotter temperatures that end up ruining the circuits.

Electronics with light beams have the potential to improve how data is communicated in microprocessors.

Besides speeding up computing power, the technique might bring about better sensors that use these chips.

It will be interesting to see if light beams start to replace electronic signals. But New Scientist points out:

Other key challenges that remain include transferring light from the laser to a light guide in the chip, and modulating the light.

But meshing lasers with silicon isn't just a pipe dream, it's already been done in the electronics industry. My SP colleague Andrew Nusca previously wrote about Intel's prototype of the world's first silicon-based optical data connection with integrated lasers .

Why? Speed. Speed. Speed. An optical link would push data much faster than copper cables. For all you movie buffs out there, this means a high-definition movie can be transmitted each second.

Photo: Connie Chang-Hasnain

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