by James Niccolai

Laser Breakthrough to Supercharge PC Speeds

Nov 15, 20062 mins
Data Center

Researchers from Intel and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have found a way to build low-cost “laser chips” that could eventually shuttle data around PCs at much higher speeds than today’s copper wire interconnects.

The researchers combined the properties of a compound semiconductor material called indium phosphide, which emits light constantly, and silicon, which can be used to amplify and direct that light. They sandwiched the materials together to create a single device that can be manufactured using standard chip-making techniques.

The breakthrough is significant: It could help the interconnect technologies that carry data between components in PCs and servers to keep pace with the rapid advances in processing power of the chips themselves, the researchers say.

“This could bring low-cost, terabit-level optical ’data pipes’ inside future computers and help make possible a new era of high-performance computing applications,” says Mario Paniccia, director of Intel’s Photonics Technology Lab.

The work may be several years away from commercialization, but the researchers expect eventually to be able to put dozens or even hundreds of lasers on a single chip.

Indium phosphide is already widely used to make lasers for fiber-optic networks, but the cost of assembling and aligning the lasers makes them too expensive for the high-volume PC business. Silicon, on the other hand, can amplify and control light and could be used more affordably but is not an efficient generator of light itself.

The researchers figured out a way to combine the two materials to build a hybrid silicon laser that can be manufactured using Intel’s standard manufacturing techniques, to keep costs relatively low. Figuring out the hybrid silicon laser was the last big barrier to using silicon-based optical devices in computers and data centers, the researchers say.