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Intel Joins Fiber Optics, Silicon

Scientists at Intel Thursday said they have created a "transistor-like" device that uses fiber optic technologies within in a wafer of standard silicon.

The process, also referred to as optoelectronics or photonics, lets manufacturers encode data onto a light beam. The "on" and "off" pattern of light can be translated into the 1's and 0's needed to transmit data.

The discovery means that Intel is now able to craft basic optical building blocks using standard semiconductor silicon production processes. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip making giant said the discovery could lead to very low-cost, high-bandwidth connections between several PCs, servers and other electronic devices, and would eventually end up inside computers as well.

"We envision that technology will start in the data center for backplanes and inter-process communication and eventually they would be used in high-speed buses," Intel Senior manager and silicon photonics strategy Victor Krutul told internetnews.com.

As part of a published paper, titled "A high-speed silicon optical modulator based on a metal-oxide-semiconductor capacitor," Intel researchers detailed how they split a beam of light into two separate beams as it passed through silicon, and then used a novel transistor-like device to hit one beam with an electric charge, inducing a "phase shift."

When the two beams of light are re-combined, the phase shift induced between the two arms makes the light exiting the chip go on and off at over one gigahertz (one billion bits of data per second), 50 times faster than previously produced on silicon.

While Intel's first optical modulator won't be in full volume production for another two years (produced using the 65nm SOI process), American Technology Research analyst Rick Whittington said Intel has certainly proved the process in the R&D lab.

"By reducing the cost of IT, it will further spur e-commerce, wireless networks, VoIP , etc. This is a big confidence booster for technology investors always "looking for the next big thing," Whittington told internetnews.com.

Intel has been working on this particular research for more than a year. Krutul said the company does not expect it to start showing up in devices until at least 2009 or 2010. The testing was conducted at one of Intel's fabrication plants.

The benefits of using the technology are speed and cost savings, Krutul said. Current experimental devices run at 1GHz on a single fiber. Intel researchers think they can scale the technology up to 10GHz or faster in the future.

A single photonic link can carry multiple, simultaneous data channels at the same speed by using different colors of light, just like multiple radio stations are transmitted to a car radio or hundreds of channels on a cable TV.

Additionally, fiber-optic cables are immune to electro-magnetic interference and cross-talk, which makes traditional high-speed copper interconnects difficult to build. The other reason to bring the fast photonics to silicon is what Krutul calls "PC economics."

"The use of fiber has been limited to long distances because they are made out of exotic materials like lithium niobate or gallium arsenide and the costs have been very high," Krutul said. "Our overall vision is to shrink the cost by building them out of silicon something Intel knows very well."

Krutul said the other added benefit is that the technology could cut down the number of cables and wires that litter the back of a server rack.

Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner principal analyst Peter Middleton says the companies that make current optical transceiver modules have several years to react and Intel's photonic impact on the rest of the market won't be felt for some time.

"This is a potentially disrupting technology," Middleton told internetnews.com. "Ultimately this is not going to displace copper interconnects, but it is something that they have to be aware of. It's a smart strategy by Intel but it's a long-term one. It's a little bit early to estimate what will happen, but certainly Intel will be a dominant factor in that they are a massive company looking to extend their silicon."

Middleton said other companies like STMicroelectronics are also looking at silicon micro transmitters and have demonstrated similar technology using optical isolation to embed an opti-coupler, but a to-market timeframe has not been established.

Intel scientists Ansheng Liu, Richard Jones, Ling Liao, Dean Samara-Rubio, Doron Rubin, Oded Cohen, Remus Nicolaescu and Mario Paniccia of Intel's Corporate Technology Group authored the paper.

Members of the team are expected to present their findings at next week's Intel Developer's Forum in San Francisco.