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Light Buffered on a Chip

Photonics.com
Dec 2006
YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y., December 27, 2006 -- IBM announced its researchers have built a device capable of delaying, or "buffering," the flow of light on a silicon chip, an achievement needed to pave the way for ultrafast computers that use light instead of electric signals to process data.

Researchers have known that the use of optical instead of electrical signals for transferring data within a computer chip might result in significant performance enhancements since light signals can carry more information faster. Yet buffering, or temporarily holding, data on the chip is critical in controlling the flow of information, so a means for doing so with light signals is necessary. The work announced last week outlines just such a means for buffering optical signals on a chip.PhotonicChip.jpg
An illustration of a futuristic silicon chip with monolithically integrated photonic and electronic circuits. (Image: IBM)
"Today's more powerful microprocessors are capable of performing much more work if we can only find a way to increase the flow of information within a computer," said T.C. Chen, vice president of science and technology for IBM Research. "As more and more data is capable of being processed on a chip, we believe optical communications is the way to eliminate these bottlenecks. As a result, the focus in high-performance computing is shifting from improvements in computation to those in communication within the system."

Long delays can be achieved by passing light through optical fibers. However, the current "delay line" devices for doing so are too large for use on a microchip, where space is precious and expensive. For practical on-chip integration, the area of a delay line should be well below one square millimeter and its construction should be compatible with current chip manufacturing techniques.

IBM scientists were able to meet this size restriction and achieve the necessary level of control of the light signal by passing it through a new form of silicon-based optical delay line built of up to 100 cascaded "micro-ring resonators," built using current silicon CMOS fabrication tools.

When the optical waveguide is curved to form a ring, light is forced to circle multiple times, delaying its travel. The optical buffer device based on this simple concept can briefly store 10 bits of optical information within an area of 0.03mm2. That's 10 percent of the storage density of a floppy disk, and a great improvement compared to previous results, IBM said. This advancement could potentially lead to integrating hundreds of these devices on one computer chip, an important step toward on-chip optical communications.

The report on the work, "Ultra-compact Optical Buffers on a Silicon Chip," by Fengnian Xia, Lidija Sekaric and Yurii Vlasov of IBM's T.J.Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, was published Dec. 22 in the premiere issue of the journal Nature Photonics. The research was partially supported by DARPA through the Defense Sciences Office program "Slowing, Storing and Processing Light."

For more information, visit: www.research.ibm.com



GLOSSARY
chip
1. A localized fracture at the end of a cleaved optical fiber or on a glass surface. 2. An integrated circuit.
light
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
optical
Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
optical communications
The transmission and reception of information by optical devices and sensors.
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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