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.

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

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

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

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

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

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 “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.

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