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Super-efficient nano-LED promises data connections at breakneck speeds

A nano-LED said to be 1,000 times more efficient than its predecessors could dramatically improve data connection speeds in electronic devices

Developed by a team at Eindhoven University of Technology, the LEDs are reportedly capable of handling data speeds reaching gigabits per second.  

Modern day electronics are increasingly being hampered by bottlenecks that limit the speed of electronic data connections within and between microchips. This is becoming apparent due to the exponential growth of data traffic worldwide.

Optical connections are the obvious successors to the current wired solution but optical data transmission requires an adequate nanoscale light source, which has been lacking so far.

With electrical cables reaching their limits, optical connections like fibreglass are increasingly becoming the standard for data traffic. Over longer distances almost all data transmission is optical.

Within computer systems and microchips, too, the growth of data traffic is exponential, but that traffic is still electronic, and this is increasingly becoming a bottleneck.

Since these connections (‘interconnects’) account for the majority of the energy consumed by chips, many scientists around the world are working on enabling optical (photonic) interconnects.

Crucial to this is the light source that converts the data into light signals which must be small enough to fit into the microscopic structures of microchips.

At the same time, the output capacity and efficiency have to be good with the latter proving to be especially challenging, as small light sources – powered by nano or microwatts – have performed poorly to date.

The newly developed LED (pictured above) spans just a few hundred nanometers with an integrated light channel (waveguide) to transport the light signal.

Its creators claim this integrated nano-LED is a 1,000 times more efficient than the best variants developed elsewhere.

The key to this is the integrated coupling of the light source and the waveguide, which ensures that much less light is lost and therefore far more light enters the waveguide.

The efficiency of the new nano-LED currently lies between 0.01 and 1 per cent, but the researchers expect to be well above that figure soon thanks to a new production method.

Another key characteristic of the new nano-LED is that it is integrated into a silicon substrate on a membrane of indium phosphide.

Silicon is the basic material for microchips but is not suitable for light sources, unlike indium phosphide. Furthermore, tests reveal that the new element converts electrical signals rapidly into optical signals and can handle data speeds of several gigabits per second.

Although the researchers are confident that their nano-LED is a viable solution to speed up the growth of data traffic on chips, the development is still a prototype and is not ready to be exploited by industry.

In September, Swedish researchers discovered a new material that was capable of improving the speed and efficiency of data storage in electronic devices. 

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