Researchers from Intel and the University of California have found a way to build low-cost 'laser chips' that could eventually shuttle data around PCs at much higher speeds than today's copper wire interconnects.
The researchers combined the properties of a compound semiconductor material called indium phosphide, which emits light constantly, and silicon, which can be used to amplify and direct that light. They sandwiched the materials together to create a single device that can be manufactured using standard chip-making techniques.
The breakthrough, announced today, is significant because it could help the interconnect technologies that carry data between components in PCs and servers to keep pace with the rapid advances in processing power of the chips themselves, the researchers said.
"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 Mario Paniccia, director of Intel's Photonics Technology Lab, in a statement.
The work may be several years away from commercialisation, but the researchers expect eventually to be able to put dozens or even hundreds of lasers on a single chip, they said.
Indium phosphide is already widely used to make lasers for fibre optic networks, but the cost of assembling and aligning the lasers makes them too expensive for the high-volume PC business. Silicon, on the other hand, can amplify and control light and could be used more affordably, but it is not an efficient generator of light itself.
The researchers figured out a way to combine the two materials to build a 'hybrid silicon laser' that can be manufactured using Intel's standard manufacturing techniques, keeping costs relatively low.
To make the silicon laser they created a thin oxide layer roughly 25 atoms thick on the surface of each material. They then heated the oxide and pressed the two layers together, forming a single chip with a 'glass glue' between them. Applying a voltage to the device generates light from the indium phosphide, which passes through the joining layer to be guided and controlled by the silicon.
The laser light can send data between computer components at extremely high speed. This can be done using a 'silicon optical modulator', which effectively turns the laser beam on and off at very high speeds to represent the 1s and 0s of computer code.
Intel has already demonstrated a silicon modulator that can transmit data at up to 10GB per second. Figuring out how to make the hybrid silicon laser was the last big barrier to using silicon-based optical devices in computers and data centres, the researchers said.