Intel announces silicon photonics breakthrough

The future of I/O connectivity is bright—literally. Intel has developed what it says is the "world's first silicon-based optical data connection with integrated lasers using Hybrid Silicon Laser technology." Using an integrated transmitter chip, an integrated receiver, and beams of light going through a fiber-optic cable, the prototype can transfer data at a whopping 50Gbps. More exciting still, Intel expects to be able to manufacture the components cheaply enough to make them a staple of both consumer and server I/O by the middle of the decade.

The video below does a decent job of introducing the technology:

(If the trendy music is too much for you, this clip provides a more geek-friendly introduction with extra nitty-gritty details.)

To achieve the phenomenal 50Gbps data rate, the integrated transmitter chip combines four lasers that each output light at a different wavelength. The chip's optical modulators encode data into each laser beam at a rate of 12.5Gbps, and the beams are then multiplexed and pushed through a single optical fiber. The integrated receiver chip on the other end splits the beams and pushes them into its integrated photodetectors, which turn the light into bits and bytes.

The prototype operates at room temperature, and Intel claims it can run for 27 consecutive hours with zero errors. Yet the transmitter and receiver chips are both made using "low-cost manufacturing techniques familiar to the semiconductor industry."

We're still talking about a concept vehicle, of course; Intel still has some work to do before it can mass-produce the design. By then, we might be looking at even higher data rates—up to a terabit per second. That speed could be reached by increasing both the number of lasers (to 25) and the line rate (to 40Gbps per laser). The slides in the gallery below should illustrate that concept.

How does this silicon photonics breakthrough fit with Intel's Light Peak technology? Intel made it clear during today's conference call that Light Peak will bring 10Gbps optical connectivity next year, while the design announced today won't be ready for mass-production for another two to three years. You might see a future version of Light Peak based on it, but Intel isn't formally tying the two together yet.

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