RealTime IT News

Intel Sees The Laser Light

We're not any closer to "Beam me up, Scotty," but Intel sees a big payoff in laser research.

Today the chip giant announced its latest research designed to create a super-fast hybrid silicon processor capable of moving data at terabits-per-second  speed.

Intel  and the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) announced they've been able to demonstrate the world's first electrically driven hybrid silicon laser.

This new laser is being called a "hybrid" because it combines two materials: silicon and an Indium Phosphide-based material that is a compound semiconductor widely used today to produce commercial communication lasers.

The researchers have employed a unique manufacturing process which create a kind of glass glue to fuse the two materials together. This glass glue is a mere 25 atoms thick.

Eventually, the researchers believe this development will lead to silicon photonic chips containing dozens or even hundreds of hybrid silicon lasers that could be manufactured using the same high-volume, low-cost techniques used to produce microprocessors today.

"It sounded like an impressive achievement," said Nathan Brookwood, analyst with Insight64.

"The last time I heard Intel say anything about silicon photonics it involved an external laser. Now they've eliminated the need for an external laser. This could really change the way companies assemble systems."

Brookwood expects Intel to first apply the technology commercially to provide 10 gigabit or higher Ethernet connections. Current solutions that rely on copper wiring are expensive and require a lot of power.

"Ten gigabit Ethernet has never worked well on copper over any significant distance and this may be the only way to get it effectively to desktop clients," said Brookwood.

John Bowers, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCSB, said the ability to move data at terabit-per-second speeds on a single copper wire is something "no one has ever talked about.

"Today optics are very expensive and the cost doesn't work, but optics gets around this."

For now, computer manufacturers and IT buyers don't have to adjust any buying plans. Intel concedes they are at least five years from delivering a commercial product.

"I think we'll have something [to commercialize] in the early part of the next decade," said Mario Paniccia, director of Intel's Photonics Technology Lab, in a conference call with reporters today.

The researchers were able to combine the light-emitting properties of Indium Phosphide with the light-routing capabilities of silicon into a single hybrid chip.

When voltage is applied, light generated in the Indium Phosphide enters the silicon waveguide to create a continuous laser beam that can be used to drive other silicon photonic devices.

"This could bring low-cost, terabit-level optical 'data pipes' inside future computers and help make possible a new era of high-performance computing applications," said Paniccia.

"While still far from becoming a commercial product, we believe dozens, maybe even hundreds, of hybrid silicon lasers could be integrated with other silicon photonic components onto a single silicon chip."

Paniccia said he believes the research effort will yield a terabit-per-second optical device smaller than the size of a fingernail.

In February, IBM researchers said they developed a way to "print" circuits onto chips using deep ultraviolet optical lithography.