Light-based microprocessor chip could lead to creation of faster computers

Light based chip

An advanced microprocessor chip has been developed, one that uses light rather than electricity to transfer data at rapid speeds while consuming minute amounts of energy, this was made possible as a result of the joint efforts of researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of California, Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  According to them, “The new chip has a bandwidth density of 300 gigabits per second per square millimeter, about 10 to 50 times greater than packaged electrical-only microprocessors currently on the market”. This new technology could lead to the creation of faster, more powerful computing systems and network infrastructure.

“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.
Miloš Popović
Assistant professor in CU-Boulder’s Department of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

The researchers stated that; “Traditional microprocessor chips—the ones found in everything from laptops to supercomputers—use electrical circuits to communicate with one another and transfer information.  In recent years, however, the sheer amount of electricity needed to power the ever-increasing speed and volume of these data transfers has proven to be a limiting factor”. To overcome this obstacle, they turned to photonics, or light-based, technology.

This is a milestone. It’s the first processor that can use light to communicate with the external world, no other processor has photonic I/O in the chip.
Vladimir Stojanović
Associate professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer sciences, University of California Berkeley

“We figured out how to reuse the same materials and processing steps that comprise the electrical circuits to build high-performance optical devices in the same chip,” said Mark Wade, a Ph.D. candidate at CU-Boulder and a co-lead author of the study. “This allows us to design complex electronic-photonic systems that can solve the communication bottleneck in computing.

Light based communication has been the preferred choice due to the advantages it offers; Multiple parallel data streams encoded on different colors of light can be sent over one and the same medium and also just as Popović stated “The infrared light that we use – and that also TV remotes use – has a physical wavelength shorter than 1 micron, about one hundredth of the thickness of a human hair,” said . “This enables very dense packing of light communication ports on a chip, enabling huge total bandwidth.”

Though the lab processor isn’t powerful, as a matter of fact it features just two cores packed on a 3×6 millimeter  chip. Researchers are hoping it could pave the way for faster and more powerful computing and network infrastructure and also more energy efficient chips.

As a result of this research two startup companies have emerged, of these, Ayar Labs which specializes in energy-efficient, high-volume data transfers and was notably issued the MIT Clean Energy Prize earlier this year.

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