Tiny plastic tube helps computer communication

Australian researchers have developed a minute multichannel optical fibre that may improve communication between computer chips

Researchers at the Australian Photonics Cooperative Research Centre have developed a small multichannel optical fibre that has the potential to improve the way that computer chips communicate with each other.

Dr Martijn van Eijkelenborg of the Optical Fibre Technology Centre (OFTC) -- a member of the CRC -- helped develop the fibre, which is produced by drilling 112 holes in polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) -- a clear plastic -- and then stretching the tube until it is a fraction of a millimetre thick. Signals can be sent either through the air-holes or along the plastic islands between the holes. The large number of channels combined with the small size of the fibre makes it suitable for use in computers.

"Currently chips are getting faster and faster," van Eijkelenborg told ZDNet Australia. "If you use a [copper track] from one chip to another, the signal gets absorbed by the background [static] on the copper tracks between chips."

Fibre ribbons -- which have tens of channels in a row -- have already been shown to enable communications between the different chips on a computers circuit board, but with the increasing transmission loads required to ferry information, the two-dimensional shape of the OFTC's multichannel fibre not only allows more transmission channels for the information, but is better suited for circuit board design.

Van Eijkelenborg could not put a time frame on when the fibres would be in commercial use, as the development was the first step in that direction. "The development could be very quick, because if you get a major company like Intel behind this, you'd get major progress," he said. The patent to the technology is held by Australian Photonics Property, which is the intellectual property holder for the Australian Photonics Cooperative Research Centre.

The fibres also have medical applications for tiny apertures in the human body, and the OFTC is conducting tests with Cochlear to see if the cables are compatible with materials used for the ear-implants developed by Cochlear. Van Eijkelenborg's paper on the fibre cables has been submitted to the scientific journal Optics Express.