IBM has come out with technology that could one day find its way into processors, allowing the processors to signal via pulses of light. This could herald the availability of faster and cooler processors.

Due to the fact that wires radiate heat, many companies have been researching in the area of substitution electrons with photons or light. IBM’s technology differentiates itself due to its size.

According to CNET

The device, known as a silicon Mach-Zehnder electro-optic modulator — converts electrical signals into pulses of light. The trick is that IBM’s modulator is 100 or more times smaller than other small modulators produced by other labs. Eventually, IBM hopes the modulator could be integrated into chips.

IBM’s ModulatorHow it works, from the same article:

Electric pulses, the yellow dots, hit the modulator, which is also being hit with a constant beam of light from a laser. The modulator emits light pulses to correspond to the electrical pulses.

The traditional bane to bigger processor dies have always been that the additional size places an upper limit to the internal bus speed of the chip. Since light travel faster than signals however, my take is that this optoelectronics research could open the way to massive multi-core processors.

Indeed, William Green, the lead scientist on the project, told InformationWeek:

Green expects to one day see hundreds to thousands of cores on a single piece of silicon, so the size of the modulator is important. The latest device is 100 to 1,000 times smaller than previous versions in the lab.

Still, optical components have historically proven to be tricky to produce. As such, it is hard to even guess when these products will come to market.