IBM uses light in silicon chips to speed up data

10 December 2012
By Sofia Mitra-Thakur
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IBM Silicon Nanophotonics chip combining optical and electrical circuits (credit IBM)

IBM Silicon Nanophotonics chip combining optical and electrical circuits (credit IBM)

IBM has announced a major advance in the ability to use light instead of electrical signals to transmit information for future computing.

The breakthrough technology, called “silicon nanophotonics”, allows the integration of different optical components side-by-side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip using, for the first time, sub-100nm semiconductor technology.

Silicon nanophotonics takes advantage of pulses of light for communication and provides a super highway for large volumes of data to move at rapid speeds between computer chips in servers, large datacentres, and supercomputers, thus alleviating the limitations of congested data traffic and high-cost traditional interconnects.

“This technology breakthrough is a result of more than a decade of pioneering research at IBM,” said Dr. John E. Kelly, Senior Vice President and Director of IBM Research. 

“This allows us to move silicon nanophotonics technology into a real-world manufacturing environment that will have impact across a range of applications.”

The amount of data being created and transmitted over enterprise networks continues to grow due to an explosion of new applications and services. 

Silicon nanophotonics, now primed for commercial development, can enable the industry to keep pace with increasing demands in chip performance and computing power.

Businesses are entering a new era of computing that requires systems to process and analyse, in real-time, huge volumes of information known as Big Data.

Silicon nanophotonics technology provides answers to Big Data challenges by seamlessly connecting various parts of large systems, whether few centimetres or few kilometres apart from each other, and move terabytes of data via pulses of light through optical fibres.

Building on its initial proof of concept in 2010, IBM has solved the key challenges of transferring the silicon nanophotonics technology into the commercial foundry.

By adding a few processing modules into a high-performance 90nm CMOS fabrication line, a variety of silicon nanophotonics components such as wavelength division multiplexers (WDM), modulators, and detectors are integrated side-by-side with a CMOS electrical circuitry.

As a result, single-chip optical communications transceivers can be manufactured in a conventional semiconductor foundry, providing significant cost reduction over traditional approaches.

IBM’s CMOS nanophotonics technology demonstrates transceivers to exceed the data rate of 25Gbps per channel. 

In addition, the technology is capable of feeding a number of parallel optical data streams into a single fiber by utilising compact on-chip wavelength-division multiplexing devices. 

The ability to multiplex large data streams at high data rates will allow future scaling of optical communications capable of delivering terabytes of data between distant parts of computer systems.

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