Light-based computing promises data ‘superhighways’

Electronics today let us transmit information across networked computers pretty fast … but not necessarily fast enough to keep up with the ballooning amounts of “big data” expected with the emerging internet of things.

So wouldn’t it be great, as we move into an increasingly connected future where every device talks with every other device, to be able to send huge volumes of data from place to place at the speed of light?

That’s the promise of “silicon nanophotonics,” which uses light-based communication between computer chips to enable miniature superhighways for large amounts of data.

IBM, which has been working some time to develop the technology, says it’s made a breakthrough that will make it easier to move silicon nanophotonics from the lab to the factory for real-world, commercial-scale production. Its discovery makes it possible for the first time to integrate optical (light-based) components side-by-side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip using ultra-small (less than 100 nanometers) semiconductor technology.

This means that single-chip optical transceivers can now be manufactured in conventional semiconductor factories. That is expected to make silicon nanophotonics much more affordable.

“This allows us to move silicon nanophotonics technology into a real-world manufacturing environment that will have impact across a range of applications,” said John E. Kelly, senior vice president and director of IBM Research.

By making it easier to seamlessly connect parts of IT systems, silicon nanophotonics can help move big data — terabytes worth of information — through optical fibers via pulses of light.

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