IBM says that it has developed a commercially viable process for integrating photonics – the use of light particles to transmit information – into microprocessors.
Back in 2010, IBM said that it had successfully integrated nano-photonic features into a conventional, electronic processor. This, it said, could lead to the development of faster and more energy efficient chips, as photons (light particles) can be transmitted with less heat and less loss of signal.
Now the company says it has "solved the key challenges of transferring the silicon nanophotonics technology into the commercial [chip] foundry".
"By adding a few processing modules into a [conventional chip] fabrication line, a variety of silicon nanophotonics components such as wavelength division multiplexers (WDM), modulators, and detectors are integrated side-by-side with […] electrical circuitry," it says. "As a result, single-chip optical communications transceivers can be manufactured in a conventional semiconductor foundry, providing significant cost reduction over traditional approaches."
IBM says the development "can enable the industry to keep pace with increasing demands in chip performance and computing power".
Photonics is already standard in long-distance transmission of data, via fibre-optic cables, as the benefits of reducing resistance improve over distance. Fibre is beginning to be deployed within data centres, as it takes up less space and produces less heat than comparable copper cabling.
Using photonics within processors has so far proved problematic, however, as individual photons are harder to manipulate than electrons.
"Photonics is actually very bad for processing because you can’t define what the photons are doing," Ovum analyst Karen Liu told Information Age earlier this year.