Transmitting data by light could solve bandwidth limitations

IBM has announced an advance in the ability to use light instead of electrical signals to transmit information.

Dubbed silicon nanophotonics, the technology allows the integration of different optical components side by side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip using sub-100nm semiconductor technology.

According to IBM, silicon nanophotonics takes advantage of pulses of light for communication and lets large volumes of data move at rapid speeds between computer chips in servers, large datacentres and supercomputers, thereby alleviating the limitations of congested data traffic and high-cost traditional interconnects. 

‘This technology breakthrough is a result of more than a decade of… research at IBM,’ said Dr John E Kelly, senior vice-president and director of IBM Research. ‘This allows us to move silicon nanophotonics technology into a real-world manufacturing environment that will have impact across a range of applications.’

New era

Businesses are entering a new era of computing that requires systems to process and analyse, in real time, large volumes of information known as Big Data. Silicon nanophotonics technology provides answers to Big Data challenges by connecting various parts of large systems and moving terabytes of data via pulses of light through optical fibres. 

Building on its initial proof of concept in 2010, IBM believes it has solved the key challenges of transferring the silicon nanophotonics technology into the commercial foundry.

By adding processing modules into a high-performance 90nm CMOS fabrication line, a variety of silicon nanophotonics components such as wavelength division multiplexers (WDM), modulators and detectors are integrated side by side with a CMOS electrical circuitry.

As a result, single-chip optical communications transceivers can be manufactured in a conventional semiconductor foundry.  

IBM’s CMOS nanophotonics technology demonstrates transceivers to exceed the data rate of 25Gbps per channel. In addition, the technology is capable of feeding a number of parallel optical data streams into a single fibre by utilising compact on-chip wavelength-division multiplexing devices.

The ability to multiplex large data streams at high data rates will allow future scaling of optical communications capable of delivering terabytes of data between distant parts of computer systems.

Further details will be presented this week by Dr Solomon Assefa at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting in a talk entitled: ‘A 90nm CMOS Integrated Nano-Photonics Technology for 25Gbps WDM Optical Communications Applications’.