IBM Engineers Use Light To Speed Up Chip Communications

IBM Engineers Use Light To Speed Up Chip Communications

Every so often, an idea comes along that really strikes us as amazing. This is definitely one of those. IBM has a team of scientists with IQs that we can't even fathom, and those very people have created an ultra-fast device that can use light for communication between chips. The goal here? It's to find a way to replace electrical signals that communicate via copper wires between computer chips with tiny silicon circuits that communicate using pulses of light. Even more importantly, this creation could advance the way computer chips talk to each other, and if new efficiencies are discovered, we can obviously expect even faster PCs in our future.



The device is called a nanophotonic avalanche photodetector, and it is the fastest of its kind. It could enable breakthroughs in energy-efficient computing that can have significant implications for the future of electronics, with Dr. T.C. Chen noting that this invention "brings the vision of on-chip optical interconnections much closer to reality." It can receive optical information signals at 40Gbps (billion bits per second) and simultaneously multiply them tenfold.

Moreover, the device operates with just a 1.5V voltage supply, 20 times smaller than previous demonstrations. Thus many of these tiny communication devices could potentially be powered by just a small AA-size battery, while traditional avalanche photodetectors require 20-30V power supplies. We know all of this just might be over your heads (we're already spinning just trying to figure it all out), so save yourself the trouble and check out the video below for some much-needed explaining.


“This dramatic improvement in performance is the result of manipulating the optical and electrical properties at the scale of just a few tens of atoms to achieve performance well beyond accepted boundaries,” said Dr. Assefa, the lead author on the paper. “These tiny devices are capable of detecting very weak pulses of light and amplifying them with unprecedented bandwidth and minimal addition of unwanted noise.” 

In IBM’s device, the avalanche multiplication takes place within just a few tens of nanometers (one-thousandths of a millimeter) and that happens very fast. The tiny size also means that multiplication noise is suppressed by 50% - 70% with respect to conventional avalanche photodetectors. The IBM device is made of Silicon and Germanium, the materials already widely used in production of microprocessor chips. Moreover it is made with standard processes used in chip manufacturing. Thus, thousands of these devices can be built side-by-side with silicon transistors for high-bandwidth on-chip optical communications. 

The Avalanche Photodetector achievement, which is the last in a series of prior reports from IBM Research, is the last piece of the puzzle that completes the development of the “nanophotonics toolbox” of devices necessary to build the on-chip interconnects.


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We ARE really in the age of light communications!! I think this is the next logical evolution of processors after the 22nm die move.

Loudly dreaming - two or more six core procs (with HT ofcourse Stick out tongue) communicating with each other through light, mounted on a pico-projector size device having a HDMI-ish interface!! Wow Big Smile

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More proof that a NAP is the key to sustained productivity.

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I agree Xylem, I always watch IBM discoveries and developments, as well as a few other key players (IE: INTEL etc). There have been several of these in the last year to two years. This one specifically, as well as the use of other substances for this type of transmission is key to the future of computers I believe.

One of the things I am sure many have noticed is the speed of development or R&D ops in the recent past. This has affected many things the time between idea's to start up, and release or at least market wide announcement also being very key in the recent past. Things like products being released, and upgraded faster than expected etc have been considerably reduced and therefore time to market reduced as well.

This is largely due to the continued growth in discovery, speed, execution which in many ways is enabled by the technology it upgrades or replaces in the first place. As far as it goes all this is just going to be faster and faster, much like this specific example.

Say IBM gets one of these devices in place then research using computers on further enhancement of this type of thing moves twice as fast, not to mention Biological research, DNA research as well as everything else. So by the time the next big thing hits the market, the one following it is relatively close or closer than even recent past delivery schedules.

Overall the faster it moves the faster it moves, so a device that took 10 years to produce, the took 5, then 2.5, no 1.5 in 1.5 3 months etc. I know this is not exactly where it is now, but in many cases is where it is going at least to a higher degree.

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I've always wondered when we would get to the point when the internals would be comprised of lasers, light, and crystals as storage devices.

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when will we have a compute the size of a 1in cube :D lol.

All i got to say about this is WOW! im impressed :D

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Exactly Inspector look at this relative flood of devices new or upgraded we have seen for the last 12 months, and we are in or at the end of a recession. Can you imagine what it would have been like 5 years ago if R&D machines could do, and do so as fast as what they have now.

The Intel Tick Tock rule throws some light on it, but I am pretty sure is has also double to Tick Tock Tick Tock now, or at least I would imagine so as many CPU's as they dropped in the last 12 months.

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