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Intel: Light beams can replace electronic signals for future computers

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Intel's new research prototype demonstrates that light beams can be used to replace electrons to transport data in computers of the future.

Intel on Tuesday announced a research prototype demonstrating that light beams can be used to replace electrons to transport data in computers of the future.

The field of study is called "silicon photonics," and Intel says it matters quite a bit.

Why? Because it could enable futuristic applications of technology such as:

  • A wall-sized, three-dimensional display with a resolution so high that friends, family or business colleagues appear to be in the room with you.
  • A datacenter or supercomputer that can have its components spread throughout a building or an entire campus instead of in one location and confined by heavy copper cables.
  • Whether an Internet company, security firm or financial institution, a way to boost the performance and reduce the costs (money, space and energy) of serious number-crunching.

Intel built a prototype of the world's first silicon-based optical data connection with (wait for it...) integrated lasers.

Yes, lasers.

That matters because the optical link can move data over longer distances and much faster than copper cables: up to 50 gigabits of data per second.

(If that means nothing to you, try this: an entire high-definition movie being transmitted each second.)

Copper cables offer reduced signal strength over long distances, which is why most supercomputers are also super-compact.

Intel wants to replace them all with "extremely thin and light optical fibers" that can transfer more data faster, which in effect, changes the way computers of the future will be designed.

Lasers for transmitting information aren't a new thing. But Intel's interest is to move beyond the use of exotic materials such as gallium arsenide and instead use readily-available silicon, which can make such computing power available to the broader market.

Intel CTO Justin Rattner demonstrated the company's 50Gbps "Silicon Photonics Link" at the Integrated Photonics Research conference in Monterey, Calif.

The project is somewhat of a research milestone for the iconic tech company: it's comprised of the first hybrid silicon laser and the first high-speed optical modulators and photodetectors.

Here's how it works, step by step:

  1. The transmitter chip is made of four hybrid silicon lasers.
  2. Light beams from the lasers each travel into an optical modulator.
  3. The modulator encodes data onto the beams at 12.5Gbps.
  4. The four beams are then combined and output to a single optical fiber, for a total data rate of 50Gbps.
  5. At the other end of the link, the receiver chip separates the four optical beams and directs them into photo detectors.
  6. The photo detectors convert data back into electrical signals.

There you have it -- ultra-fast computing power.

Here's a video explanation:

The key point: the chips involved can be made using the same cheap processes used by the semiconductor industry.

Intel says its researchers are already working to increase the data rate by scaling the modulator speed. They're also trying to increase the number of lasers per chip.

The ultimate goal: terabit-per-second optical links, or fast enough to transfer all of the data on a laptop in one second.

Here's a demonstration in a video clip:

Photos: Intel's 50Gbps Silicon Photonics transmit module; University of California at Santa Barbara professor John Bowers and Intel Labs fellow Mario Paniccia. (Intel)

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure