Intel Heralds Silicon Laser

Researchers at Intel have claimed a breakthrough with a continuous-wave laser created with standard silicon manufacturing, calling it a world first that could lower the cost of high-quality lasers for optical devices used in mainstream computing, communications and medical treatment.

Applications of the technology, still at least a few years from commercialization, include more affordable lasers for use in optical computing, whereby light is used to move data around computers and networks in a flash.

Martin Reynolds, Gartner research vice president, told TechNewsWorld that the silicon laser had more relevance for communications than for computing, but was significant in its ability to amplify very faint signals.

“For computing, the important components are emitters, detectors and modulators; we still do not have silicon emitters,” he said. “The silicon laser will make optical amplifiers cheaper and smaller, extending the reach of the optical backbone. It is a step towards [carrying optical] fiber to the desktop.”

Low Cost, High Bandwidth

Intel’s scientists, who reported their work in the journal Nature today, said they had used what is known as the “Raman effect” — a form of scattering light — and silicon’s crystalline structure to amplify light as it passes through an experimental silicon chip.

The company claimed that the ability to build a laser from standard silicon could lead to inexpensive optical devices moving data at the speed of light, as well as a “flood” of new applications for high-speed computing.

Intel researchers indicated that in the future computers may come not only with a power supply to drive the chips, hard disc and peripherals but also with a light supply to drive tiny lasers, amplifiers and optical interconnects capable of moving terabytes of data throughout PCs and networks.

The scientists also stressed that using silicon makes the optical building blocks faster and far less expensive.

“Fundamentally, we have demonstrated for the first time that standard silicon can be used to build devices that amplify light,” said a statement from Mario Paniccia, director of Intel’s Photonics Technology Lab in Santa Clara, California.

“The use of high-quality photonic devices has been limited because they are expensive to manufacture, assemble and package. This research is a major step toward bringing the benefits of low-cost, high-bandwidth, silicon-based optical devices to the mass market.”

Stronger, Faster Signal

Kevin Teixeira, a spokesperson for Intel Research and Development, told TechNewsWorld that although the company’s technologists focused on the basic building blocks, the silicon laser work could be key to more mainstream optical computing.

“The research they’re doing hasn’t been focused on that kind of thing,” Teixeira said. “However, the technique they’re doing can be used not just to build a laser, but [also] to build an amplifier. Now there’s a way to build an amplifier to make the signal lossless.”

Stressing that the Intel work was focused on the fundamental building blocks of bringing photonics to silicon, Teixeira said the next challenge for researchers is to get the individual elements of the silicon laser to operate at higher frequencies. He indicated that a modulator Intel announced last year was running at 2.5 GHz, while today’s copper buses and interconnects run at 10 GHz or higher in the telecom industry.

Stretching Silicon’s Life

Other researchers have looked beyond silicon, which is widely viewed as having been pushed near its physical limits because of the trend toward miniaturization and efficiency. HP, for example, last month announced that its researchers had created an alternative to the silicon transistor. The company said the “crossbar-latch,” a tiny signal line made of platinum and titanium, could be built in mass quantities and become the basis of computers that are thousands of times more powerful than today’s.

Intel, however, has devoted much of its research and development to innovations that extend the life of silicon, which is in fact a suitable substrate and platform for developing nanotechnology solutions, according to Teixeira.

“Using exotic compounds and such — you’re not talking mass volume,” he said. “A few in the lab is not like creating billions.”

Teixeira added it makes sense to leverage the existing “worldwide infrastructure” and “40 years of working with silicon” to advance computing and electronics.

Gartner’s Reynolds agreed that silicon will remain significant for some time to come.

“Silicon is a fantastic vehicle for making tiny stuff,” he said. “We have seen it extended to mechanical components, like [Texas Instruments’] DLP [digital light processing] devices. There will be chemical, biological, optical and ultimately quantum devices built on the back of silicon process technology.”

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