Intel Lights Up Laser Chip

By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2006-09-18 Email Print this article Print

Intel and UCSB researchers have created a process to build lasers into silicon chips as another step toward photon-based chip interconnects.

Researchers at Intel and the University of California Santa Barbara say they have made another step toward integrating silicon chips and lasers, which could someday speed up computers with high-bandwidth chip-to-chip interconnects.

The researchers are collaborating in a field Intel has dubbed silicon photonics; the creation of on-chip components that can use light to transmit data. The researchers' latest work involves a process of integrating a laser directly into a silicon chip.

Intel has been exploring for some time different ways to use silicon photonics to replace electrical interconnects, which use copper wiring, to speed up the vital connections that move data into and out of its processors. The prospect of moving from electrical interconnects to silicon photonics is a difficult one, however. Among other things, photonics devices are relatively expensive, complex and, to date, have required what Intel says are exotic materials.

The work announced on Sept. 18, which involves combining indium phosphide and silicon, the basic building block of chip making, offers further proof that photonic devices—in this case lasers themselves—can be built into silicon chips, the researchers said in a statement released by Intel.

But, to be sure, Intel thinks that electrical interconnects will continue to be used for some time as the technology for making photonic devices is developed and then matures. But researchers have said they believe optical interconnects can eventually win out as it becomes more difficult to wring greater and greater performance out of copper wires.

The company also has a vested interest in silicon photonics as creating high-bandwidth interconnects, which can move more data, will become more vital as Intel moves deeper into the realm of multicore chips.

Intel is nearing the launch of its first quad-core chip, which will place four individual processor cores into one processor package. However, its engineers are working on chips with far more than four cores as part of a project called Tera-Scale Computing. Tera-Scale, which could either become or lead to a future processor architecture for Intel, is researching the idea of combining a few specialized processor cores—for jobs like processing TCP/IP—with tens or hundreds of simple cores to divide up a computing task and process it quickly.

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John G. Spooner John G. Spooner, a senior writer for eWeek, chronicles the PC industry, in addition to covering semiconductors and, on occasion, automotive technology. Prior to joining eWeek in 2005, Mr. Spooner spent more than four years as a staff writer for CNET, where he covered computer hardware. He has also worked as a staff writer for ZDNET News.

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