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Nanophotonics: What's light got to do with IT?

IBM announces a breakthrough in nanonphotonics, one it says will speed the creation of affordable silicon/optical chips to speed data through servers and data centers.

If you're keeping the lights on in your enterprise, you'll want to keep an eye on a new, light-based engineering breakthrough IBM today announced.

The field is nanophotonics. IBM today announced that it has for the first time verified the technology in a manufacturing scenario. Future tech utilizing nanophotonics will be silicon chips that use light instead of or in addition to electrical signals. Computers using such tech will, IBM reps say, allow data to move more quickly in not just servers equipped with silicon-based nanophotonic chips, but also in systems via data centers -- and in supercomputers, too.

The most interesting thing about this announcement is that the tech will work in the standard 90 nanometer semiconductor form factor.

In a statement, IBM Research division director and senior vice president John Kelley said, "This technology breakthrough is a result of more than a decade of pioneering research." Click here for a white paper that gets into the tech in depth and explains why pulses of light will speed data transfer speeds and how that will affect your enterprise.

This is a breakthrough not only because the technology demonstrably works, he added, but because it allows such optical components  (or silicon nanophotonic) components as modulators and photodetectors to work side by side and in concert with traditional chip tech -- and to be manufactured in traditional chip fabs and form factors. Bottom line:

Nanophotonics, long predicted, is closer and now, ostensibly, cheaper to produce than most futurists have been predicting. We'll be watching with more analysis.

In the meantime, check out this cross section of a silicon-based nanophotonic part that IBM provided this morning.

Figure 1, above: IBM is circulating this shot of a 90nm silicon-based nanophotonics chip cross section. The red color integrates an optical photodetector part. The blue at right indicates the modulator. Both optical parts are integrated with traditional silicon transistors, indicated by the red sparks. Nine levels of wires connect silicon transistors with the nanophotonic circuits and silicon transistors. Credit: IBM.


Gina Smith is a NYT best-selling author of iWOZ, the biography of Steve Wozniak. She is a vet tech journalist and chief of the geek tech site, aNewDomain.net.


as a storage medium also.


I would think this could improve bus speeds in circuits/motherboards too. Because the signals would not have to rely on the latency of copper/gold/silver connections. At the chip level, I'd have to understand more about this tech to make a better guess. However - unless some kind of fiber optic nano fiber were to carry the light signal - chip alinment would be critical, or the lazer/diode signal could miss its target. I'm sure I'm completely confused about how this is actually working. Power would still have to be supplied by conductors to power the light sources, unless they are talking about some kind of light activated energy, much like a reverse photo-diode. (edited) - Just looked at the white paper, and my points were correct. I suppose it is no more difficult to get fiber channels on a chip than the doped silicon, so alignment won't generally be a problem, unless engineers decide to skip certain areas by transmitting information through the air over the circuit board - much as the IBM diagram suggests. Looks like photo cells will act as receivers - seems like the reverse could transmit power too! This could make circuit design even more power efficient, and easier to plot on the plans.


Great about speed increase. Is not energy saving a feature of these nanophotonics chips ? MJ