Concept art of data transmission

New chip design exponentially boosts data rate for processors

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A doctoral student at Texas A&M University has designed a chip that could greatly accelerate the current data rate for processors by bridging the gap between electronics and optics.

According to the United Nations' telecommunications agency, 93 per cent of the global population has access to a mobile-broadband network of some kind. With data becoming more readily available to consumers, there is a greater demand for more of it and at faster speeds.

Now a research team at Texas A&M University has designed a chip that could revolutionise the current data rate for processors and technologies such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers.

Ramy Rady, a doctoral student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and his team - including faculty advisor and professor Dr. Kamran Entesari, along with Dr. Christi Madsen and Dr. Sam Palermo, are moving toward the use of microwave photonics, a branch of optics that focuses on improving the quality of microwave signals using photonic structures. The advantage to Rady's project over all previous solutions is its small size and high-speed operation, i.e. frequency and data rates.

Photons travel extremely quickly, moving at the speed of light. By contrast, electrons move much slower at about 2,200 kilometres per second - less than 1 per cent of the speed of light. By integrating photonic structures onto a silicon substrate by way of optics, the researchers could take advantage of the speed that photons provide while utilising the features of existing electronic CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) technology to make silicon photonic integrated circuits.

The advantage to Ramy Rady's chip design project over all previous solutions is its small size and high-speed operation.

Image credit: Justin Baetge, Texas A&M Engineering

Silicon photonic integrated circuits consume less power and generate less heat than conventional electronic circuits, which allows for an increase in data transmission. Previous work in this area was only conducted using optical processing.

"My prototype chip operates from 25 to 40GHz, creating four channels each of a 5GHz bandwidth," Rady said. "This chip operates at a higher speed with a higher data rate than the previous generation of chips which relied on optical processing. The new chip is capable of reaching nearly five times the bandwidth compared to a contemporary cell phone."

Rady explained that the motion of electrons is limited and subsequently the quality of energy that is sent and stored to your phone, for example, is also limited. This is where the integration of photons comes into play.

Details of the project, which received funding from the National Science Foundation, have appeared in two technical papers published by Rady.

Earlier this year, researchers from the Graphene Flagship project announced development of a wafer-scale fabrication technique which could open the door to a new generation of telecommunications devices. Graphene-enabled photonic devices absorb light from ultraviolet to the far-infrared parts of the spectrum, allowing for ultra-broadband communications and enabling vast data transmission speeds, potentially breaking the barrier of 100Gbps.

In May, researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm demonstrated light emitters for quantum circuits which operate without the need for extreme refrigeration and which can emit photons on demand, in a potential step forwards for quantum information. In related quantum news, the Cambridge Research Laboratory of Toshiba Europe recently announced a milestone for long-distance quantum communication, demonstrating quantum key distribution on optical fibres of over 600km in length.

This week, E&T reported how researchers have found a way to use laser technology to push more data through existing internet cabling infrastructure, reaching speeds of up to 40Tb per second. The speeds - fast enough to download around 5,000 Netflix films in a single second - were achieved by using a new way of splitting up light channels to deliver more information inside and between data centres.

Instead of using a single channel, the team used multiple wavelengths to deliver information on a single Photonic Integrated Circuit (PIC). PICs use photonics or light-based technology to deliver much higher bandwidth in a power-efficient manner than traditional chips.

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