First Ever Processor That Uses Light for Ultrafast Communications May Change Future Tech

First Posted: Dec 28, 2015 08:40 AM EST

Engineers have demonstrated the first ever processor that uses light for ultrafast communications. They've successfully married electrons and photons within a single-chip microprocessor, which could be huge for future technologies.

In this latest effort, the researchers packed two processor cores with more than 70 million transistors and 850 photonic components onto a 3-by-6 millimeter chip. The scientists then fabricated the microprocessor in a foundry that mass-produces high-performance computer chips, proving that their design can be easily and quickly scaled up for commercial production.

The new chip marks the next step in the evolution of fiber optic communication technology by integrating into a microprocessor the photonic interconnects, or inputs and outputs (I/O), needed to talk to other chips.

"This is a milestone," said Vladimir Stojanovic, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It's the first processor that can use light to communicate with the external world. No other processor has the photonic I/O in the chip."

Compared with electrical wires, fiber optics support greater bandwidth, carrying more data at higher species over greater distance with less energy. Now, researchers have managed to use light and have integrated it into the same complex and expensive fabrication processes used to produce computer chips without changing the process itself.

"The advantage with optical is that with the same amount of power, you can go a few centimeters, a few meters or a few kilometers," said Chen Sun, one of the researchers. "For high-speed electrical links, 1 meter is about the limit before you need repeaters to regenerate the electrical signal, and that quickly increases the amount of power needed. For an electrical signal to travel 1 kilometer, you'd need thousands of picojoules for each bit."

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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