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Intel Beams Up Silicon

Scientists with Intel announced a new technology they say could vastly help improve the way high-quality lasers and optical devices are used in computers.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company said its researchers have found a way to create a continuous, high-quality laser beam using the crystalline structure of silicon and combining it with a light scattering technique called the Raman effect.

While still far from becoming a commercial product, Intel said the ability to build a laser from standard silicon could lead to inexpensive optical devices that move data inside and between computers.

In one case, Intel said it could use the technology in tiny lasers, amplifiers and optical interconnects to move terabytes of data around the computer and across networks.

"Fundamentally, we have demonstrated for the first time that standard silicon can be used to build devices that amplify light," Mario Paniccia, director of Intel's Photonics Technology Lab and co-author of the research paper, said. "The use of high-quality photonic devices has been limited because they are expensive to manufacture, assemble and package."

Dentists could benefit from the lasers, too. For example, Intel said one type of laser wavelength is useful for working on gums and another one for excavating cavities in teeth.

Intel said its breakthrough came when researchers tried to incorporate a semiconductor structure, technically called a PIN (P-type, Intrinsic, N-type) device into the waveguide. When a voltage is applied to the PIN, it acts like a vacuum and removes most of the excess electrons from the light's path. The PIN device combined with the Raman effect produces a continuous laser beam, Intel said.

The new silicon laser technology is part of Intel's Silicon Photonics research as a way to explore ways of developing optical devices into Intel's product line. In 2004, the chipmaker developed its first silicon-based optical modulator to encode data at 1GHz, an increase of more than 50 times the previous research record of about 20MHz.

"We have a wide range of long-term research programs in place to find new ways of applying our silicon expertise to make life better for people," said Kevin Kahn, Intel senior fellow and director of the communications technology lab. "For example, we are developing wireless sensor networks that could be used to spot equipment failures in factories and even on ships at sea before they happen, or to improve health care services for the elderly."

The procedure was first reported in this week's issue of the journal Nature. Currently, these lasers cost tens of thousands of dollars each, limiting their use. Intel is expected to release more details about its research at next month's Intel Developers Forum.