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Intel engineers use light waves to carry data

Experimental silicon lasers may bring optics to chips

Intel researchers have developed a method of generating a continuous laser with a silicon device, one of the first steps toward introducing optical interconnects in future processors, servers, and PCs the company said today.

Exploiting a principle called the Raman effect and using standard chip-manufacturing techniques, Intel has built a transistor-like device that can produce a continuous beam of light. Those light waves can carry data at faster speeds than copper, the current standard for chip interconnects.

"These building blocks are still a research project, but we hope to transfer the technology by the end of the decade," said Mario Paniccia, director of Intel's Photonics Technology Lab.

Intel's research in this area is part of the chip industry's search for alternative techniques and materials to enable it to continue reducing the size of transistors well into the future.

Companies such as Intel and IBM are working on ways to boost chip performance as chip components shrink to the size of individual atoms, a point at which the decades-long practice of diminishing the size of transistors becomes exceedingly difficult.

Fibre-optic materials have been replacing older copper wire as the preferred means of transmitting signals over long-haul communications networks for a while, Paniccia said. Unfortunately, fibre-optic materials are expensive and complex.

Using silicon materials to generate light waves would solve many of the cost issues, but silicon does not naturally emit light. On the other hand, existing silicon devices can be used as channels for laser beams capable of carrying data signals.

The new laser technology could be used in everything from chip components to portable medical devices, Paniccia said. The silicon laser presented today is one of many optical components that researchers must test and further develop before it can be used in chip-to-chip or motherboard-to-motherboard connections, he said.

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