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  • Si Data Connection with Integrated Lasers
Jul 2010
SANTA CLARA, Calif., July 28, 2010 — Intel Corp. announced an important advance in the quest to use light beams instead of electrons as data carriers in computers: development of a research prototype representing the first silicon-based optical data connection with integrated lasers. The link can move data over longer distances and many times faster than today’s copper technology; up to 50 Gb of data per second, or the equivalent of transmitting an entire HD movie every second.

An engineer holds a 50 Gb/s silicon photonics transmit module. Laser light from the silicon chip at the center of the green board travels to the receiver module in the upper right, where a second silicon chip detects the data on the laser and coverts it back into an electrical signal. (Images: Business Wire)

Today computer components are connected to each other using copper cables or traces on circuit boards. Due to the signal degradation that comes with using metals such as copper to transmit data, these cables have a limited maximum length. This also limits the design of computers, forcing processors, memory and other components to be placed just inches from each other.

Today’s research achievement is another step toward replacing these connections with extremely thin and light optical fibers that can transfer much more data over far longer distances, radically changing the way computers of the future are designed and altering the way the datacenter of tomorrow is architected.

Silicon photonics will have applications across the computing industry. For example, at these data rates one could imagine a wall-sized 3-D display for home entertainment and videoconferencing with a resolution so high that the actors or family members appear to be in the room with you. Tomorrow’s datacenter or supercomputer may see components spread throughout a building or even an entire campus, communicating with each other at high speed, as opposed to being confined by heavy copper cables with limited capacity and reach. This will allow datacenter users, such as a search engine company, cloud computing provider or financial datacenter, to increase performance, capabilities and save significant costs in space and energy, or help scientists build more powerful supercomputers to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Dr. Mario Paniccia, Intel Fellow and director of Photonics Research at Intel Labs, holds the thin optical fiber used to carry data from one end of the 50-G silicon photonics link to the other.

Justin Rattner, Intel chief technology officer and director of Intel Labs, demonstrated the silicon photonics Link at the Integrated Photonics Research Conference in Monterey, Calif. The 50 Gb/s link is akin to a “concept vehicle” that allows Intel researchers to test new ideas and continue the company’s quest to develop technologies that transmit data over optical fibers, using light beams from low cost and easy to make silicon, instead of costly and hard to make devices using exotic materials like gallium arsenide. While telecommunications and other applications already use lasers to transmit information, current technologies are too expensive and bulky to be used for PC applications.

“This achievement of the world’s first 50 Gb/s silicon photonics link with integrated hybrid silicon lasers marks a significant achievement in our long term vision of ‘siliconizing’ photonics and bringing high bandwidth, low cost optical communications in and around future PCs, servers, and consumer devices,” Rattner said.

This silicon transmitter chip uses integrated hybrid silicon lasers along with other silicon photonic devices to send up to 50 Gb of data each second.

The 50 Gb/s silicon photonics link prototype is the result of a multiyear silicon photonics research agenda, which included numerous “world firsts.” It is composed of a silicon transmitter and a receiver chip, each integrating all the necessary building blocks from previous Intel breakthroughs including the first hybrid silicon laser co-developed with the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2006 (See Hybrid Silicon Laser Chip That Emits, Guides Light Developed) as well as high-speed optical modulators and photodetectors announced in 2007.

The transmitter chip is composed of four such lasers, whose light beams each travel into an optical modulator that encodes data onto them at 12.5 Gb/s. The four beams are then combined and output to a single optical fiber for a total data rate of 50 Gb/s. At the other end of the link, the receiver chip separates the four optical beams and directs them into photodetectors, which convert data back into electrical signals. Both chips are assembled using low-cost manufacturing techniques familiar to the semiconductor industry. Intel researchers are already working to increase the data rate by scaling the modulator speed as well as increase the number of lasers per chip, providing a path to future terabit/s optical links — rates fast enough to transfer a copy of the entire contents of a typical laptop in one second.

This research is separate from Intel’s Light Peak technology, though both are components of Intel’s overall business strategy. Light Peak is an effort to bring a multiprotocol 10 Gb/s optical connection to Intel client platforms for nearer-term applications. Silicon photonics research aims to use silicon integration to bring dramatic cost reductions, reach terascale data rates, and bring optical communications to an even broader set of high-volume applications, the company said.

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optical communications
The transmission and reception of information by optical devices and sensors.
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