New technique allows the addition of optical communication components to existing chips with little modification of their designs

By Jean-Jacques
DeLisle, contributing writer

 

A
team of researchers led by groups at MIT, the University of California at
Berkeley, and Boston University have announced the development of a new
microprocessor that can integrate optical communication components with
electrical components, all on the same chip. The new technique makes use of
older chip technology and established manufacturing processes allowing for the
optical components to be deposited on the same layer of silicon as the
electrical components. The addition of optical components to a microcontroller
is monumental because it allows for a massive increase in communication speed
while taking up nearly 20 times less space than conventional photonic
components. 

Image source:
MIT.

 

According
to Amir Atabaki, a research scientist at MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics
and one of three first authors on the new paper, the advancement will allow
optics to be added to existing technologies with ease in the future. “We have
different silicon electronic technologies, and if we can just add photonics to
them, it’d be a great capability for future communications and computing
chips,” he said. “For example, now we could imagine a
microprocessor manufacturer or a GPU manufacturer like Intel or Nvidia saying,
‘This is very nice. We can now have photonic input and output for our
microprocessor or GPU.’ And they don’t have to change much in their process to
get the performance boost of on-chip optics.”

 

The
drive for the industry to move away from electronic communication components
and toward optical components is fueled by power consumption. Previous optical
communication components were too large and inefficient, producing massive
amounts of heat and taking up as much as 20 times the amount of space that is
taken up by the new MIT design. The secret to the new optical components
efficiency is silicon, which has been used in microchips for decades. Now, the
researchers discovered new ways to arrange the crystal structure in order to
allow optical and electronic components to exist within the same system.

 

Impressively,
the researchers used a special type of silicon known as polysilicon formed into
small wafers to create the microcontrollers. According to Atabaki, the team
went through more than 50 silicon wafers before finding the right material. To
make the advancement, they used the manufacturing facilities at SUNY
Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Sciences and Engineering.

 

These
new chips allow for faster, more efficient communication and can be expected to
make a massive contribution to the advancement of modern technology. Every day
brings new advancements and brings new tools to bear for engineers and
developers everywhere. The
Semiconductor Industry Association
has estimated
that at current rates of increase, computers’ energy requirements will exceed
the world’s total power output by 2040, which means that more efficient chips
are essential if mankind continues to develop new technologies.