A Chip That Can Transfer Data Using Laser Light
By JOHN MARKOFF
Published: September 18, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 17 — Researchers plan to announce on Monday that they have created a silicon-based chip that can produce laser beams. The advance will make it possible to use laser light rather than wires to send data between chips, removing the most significant bottleneck in computer design.
As a result, chip makers may be able to put the high-speed data communications industry on the same curve of increased processing speed and diminishing costs — the phenomenon known as Moore’s law — that has driven the computer industry for the last four decades.
The development is a result of research at Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Commercializing the new technology may not happen before the end of the decade, but the prospect of being able to place hundreds or thousands of data-carrying light beams on standard industry chips is certain to shake up both the communications and computer industries.
Lasers are already used to transmit high volumes of computer data over longer distances — for example, between offices, cities and across oceans — using fiber optic cables. But in computer chips, data moves at great speed over the wires inside, then slows to a snail’s pace when it is sent chip-to-chip inside a computer.
With the barrier removed, computer designers will be able to rethink computers, packing chips more densely both in home systems and in giant data centers. Moreover, the laser-silicon chips — composed of a spider’s web of laser light in addition to metal wires — portend a vastly more powerful and less expensive national computing infrastructure. For a few dollars apiece, such chips could transmit data at 100 times the speed of laser-based communications equipment, called optical transceivers, that typically cost several thousand dollars.