12 February 2004 A breakthrough by Intel scientists will make high speed fibre-optic chips affordable enough for commercial PCs by the end of the decade, claims the chip giant’s chief technology officer Pat Gelsinger.
Intel, he said, has developed an optical chip made from silicon, which is significantly cheaper than standard optical modulators. Until now, silicon has been unable to produce such high-speed transfers of information.
Gelsinger claims that Intel has broken all speed records for silicon modulators, devices that pulse data-transmitting light onto fibre-optic cables at high speed. “This is a significant step toward building optical devices that move data around inside a computer at the speed of light,” said Gelsinger.
The chip runs at 1 gigahertz, 50 times faster than previous attempts, and will enable more than two billion bits of data a second to be transmitted via light waves. Intel expects to take that speed up to 10GHz, the level of other optical modulators, by the end of the year.
The prototype also automates alignment of optical fibre into the modulator, cutting the cost of the equipment by up to 60%. This saving, combined with cheaper materials, will allow fibre-optic cables to be built into standard PCs.
Analysts forecast that the development will open up the commercial potential of standard semiconductors for optical, rather than simply electronic, data transfer.
As well as eliminating data jams, the technology will revolutionise digital communications, enabling genuinely interactive television and the ability to share large files almost instantaneously.
“Before, there were two worlds — computing and communications,” Alan Huang, former Bell Labs physicist and founder of the Terabit Corporation, an optical networking company, told the New York Times. “Now they will be the same and we will have powerful computers everywhere.”
Intel will demonstrate the technology as part of a communications system at its annual developer conference in San Francisco, California next week, when it will transmit high definition video over a five-mile coil of optic cable. Details of the technique are published in the latest edition of Nature magazine.