We are finally inching closer to utilising an alternative way of transmitting data. For years, we've relied on electric signals in metal wires to send and receive information, but researchers at three United States universities have built a chip that can transmit data using light instead. The new technology can speed up the data transmission rate, and lower the power consumption.
Researchers at MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Colorado have devised a single-chip microprocessor, measuring 3x6mm, that utilises multiple wavelengths of light, simultaneously sending data through a single fibre. The technology has the potential of transmitting data at nearly 300Gbps per square millimetre, which is close to 50 times faster than conventional electronic wires.
When compared with electrical wires, fibre optics offer larger bandwidth that could facilitate higher rate of communications over greater distances. Fibre optics also utilises less energy. The prototype researchers used had fibre optic links instead of conventional electric wires, also demonstrating that optical chips can be made without any alteration to existing semiconductor manufacturing processes, which has been a challenge thus far.
"This is a milestone. It's the first processor that can use light to communicate with the external world," said Vladimir Stojanović, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. "No other processor has the photonic I/O in the chip."
"Light based integrated circuits could lead to radical changes in computing and network chip architecture in applications ranging from smartphones to supercomputers to large data centers, something computer architects have already begun work on in anticipation of the arrival of this technology," said Miloš Popović, an assistant professor in CU-Boulder's Department of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering and a co-corresponding author of the study.
These silicon photonics chips keep data in handy at all times, cutting the idle time, which enhances the overall performance. The technology also has applications in laser sensors in self-driving cars, as well in the medical fields such as in brain imaging. It could potentially change the way our computers work.
So when can we expect it? The researchers are expecting that data-centers will be the first to utilise the chips, and they will eventually find their way into the mobile and PC market. They also expect the test versions of these chips to be ready by early 2017. The team has published a paper in the journal Nature.