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Silicon-based nanophotonics: in IBM's research laboratories, optical communication components are integrated into ordinary computer chips

After ten years of research, the technology has matured that allows the streaming of many terabytes at the speed of light within the computer and between its components - and is moving into commercial production

An IBM chip that applied nano-photonics on top of silicon. Photo PR - IBM
An IBM chip that applied nano-photonics on top of silicon. Photo PR - IBM

IBM presents a significant advance in the use of light instead of electrical signals to transfer data and information within computers of future generations. The technology, which was named "silicon-based nanophotonics", makes it possible to combine a variety of optical components alongside electrical circuits, on a single silicon chip. For the first time in the history of the industry, IBM was able to produce such integrated chips in standard semiconductor technology, of less than 100 nanometers.

Silicon-based nanophotonics uses pulses of light for communication, and provides a "highway" for transferring large amounts of data at extremely high rates, between various chips integrated into servers, data processing centers and supercomputers. The application of the technology breaks through the limitations that were known until now, in heavy data traffic using traditional communication connectors that carry an expensive price tag.

According to Dr. John Kelly, senior vice president and manager of IBM's research system, "the technological breakthrough is the result of more than a decade of pioneering research carried out at IBM. This new knowledge allows us to transfer the silicon-based nanophotonics technology from the laboratories to the real production world, where it is expected to affect a wide variety of applications and fields."

The amount of data generated in organizations and transmitted over their communication networks continues to grow rapidly, with the emergence of new applications and services. Silicon-based nanophotonics, which is making its way into the world of applied and commercial development, may allow the industry to keep up with the growing demand for performance in silicon chips, and computing power in general.

Businesses are now entering a new era that requires systems that can process and analyze, in real time, large amounts of data, which have been dubbed Big Data. Silicon-based nanophotonics provides an answer to the challenges of Big Data, through transparent communication between different parts of large systems - whether they are only a few centimeters apart, or whether they are separated by kilometers. Using such integrated chips, it will be possible to move and transmit many terabytes of data in efficient and fast optical communication.

After proving the first ability of the new technology, which was carried out in 2010, IBM managed to solve a series of challenges on the way to transfer silicon-based nanophotonics from the laboratory to the serial production plants. The addition of several modules to the production line at 90 nanometers (0.9 microns) in CMOS technology, now makes it possible to produce a variety of nanophotonic components in standard silicon.

Among other things, IBM's technology makes it possible to produce wavelength division multiplexers (WDM), modulators, and light detectors, and to integrate them side by side together with electrical circuits, on CMOS chips. As a result, it is possible to produce an optical transceiver (transceiver) on a single silicon chip, in normal production plants - while significantly cutting costs compared to the traditional production processes of optical communication components.

Silicon-based nanophotonics technology features components capable of handling data traffic at rates of 25 gigabits per channel. In addition, the technology allows several optical data channels to be fed into a single fiber through wavelength multiplexing, which is carried out on the same communication chip. The ability to multiplex large streams of data at a high rate will make it possible to continue to increase optical communication capabilities, and to stream terabytes of data between remote parts of computer systems.

IBM's new development will be presented this week at the IEDM conference, which is being held in San Francisco.

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