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Intel said it has achieved a breakthrough in data-carrying light that holds the promise of being able to transmit terabits of data per second on a single chip, making it possible to one day develop computers capable of downloading full-length movies in seconds and quickly performing other data-intensive tasks.
The latest achievement is in the area of silicon photonics, which is the use of lasers to increase the bandwidth of interconnects between components of a microprocessor. Intel researchers are working on the use of light to transmit data on silicon, which is the material used to make processors.
Silicon is used in building chips because the material is inexpensive and perfect for high-volume manufacturing. Unfortunately, it presents a challenge to scientists trying to use data-carrying lasers, which are typically used on more exotic materials.
What researchers at Intel's Photonics Technology Lab have done is build a key component needed for a silicon-based photonic integrated circuit, Ansheng Liu, principal engineer with Intel's corporate technology group, said in the lab's blog. That component is a silicon optical modulator that can encode data on an optical beam at 40 billion bits per second.
While Intel scientists have built optical modulators before, it's the first time one has been developed that can encode data at speeds that match the fastest devices deployed today using other materials, Liu said. The results of Intel's research were first introduced this month to a small group of scientists at the Integrated Photonics and Nanophotonics Research and Applications conference in Salt Lake City.
In 2004, Intel published in the journal Nature the first silicon modulator to reach gigahertz speeds, which were 50 times faster than previous attempts. In January of this year, the chipmaker demonstrated a modulator with data transmission rates of 30Gbits per second.
Intel is not saying when photonic integrated circuits incorporating the new technology will be used in products to provide affordable optical interconnects within computers and other devices. Nevertheless, the use of the technology, along with Intel's previously developed silicon laser, will one day make it possible to integrate multiple devices on a single chip that can transmit terabits of data per second, "truly enabling tera-scale computing," Liu said.