Intel researchers have developed a silicon-based, optical data connection prototype capable of transferring up to 50 gigabits per second.
Currently, computer components are linked to each other via copper cables or traces on circuit boards. However, metals such as copper are prone to signal degradation when transferring data over long distances.
This effectively limits the design of computers - forcing processors, memory and other components - to be placed just inches from each other.
But Intel's silicon-based optical data connection could eventually allow the industry to replace traditional connections with extremely thin and light optical fibers capable of transferring gigabits of data over long distances.
According to Intel CTO Justin Rattner, silicon photonics will likely have multiple applications across the computing industry.
"For example, at these data rates one could imagine a wall-sized 3D display for home entertainment and videoconferencing with a resolution so high that the actors or family members appear to be in the room with you.
"And tomorrow's datacenter or supercomputer may see components spread
throughout a building or even an entire campus, communicating with each other at high speed, as opposed to being confined by heavy copper cables with limited capacity and reach."
Rattner explained that a silicon photonic-based data center would allow datacenter users - including search engine companies or cloud computing providers - to increase performance, while saving significant costs in space and energy.
"[For now, though], the 50Gbps link is akin to a 'concept vehicle' that allows [us] to test new ideas and develop technologies [which] transmit data over optical fibers, using light beams from low cost and easy to make silicon.
"[Although] telecommunications and other applications already use lasers to transmit information, current technologies are too expensive and bulky to be used for PC applications."
The 50Gbps Photonics Link prototype comprises a silicon transmitter and receiver chip. The chip is equipped with four hybrid silicon lasers whose light beams each travel into an optical modulator that encodes data onto them at 12.5Gbps.
The four beams are then combined and output to a single optical fiber for a total data rate of 50Gbps.
At the other end of the link, the receiver chip separates the four optical beams and directs them into photo detectors, which convert data back into electrical signals.
It should be noted that Intel researchers are already working to accelerate data rates by scaling modulator speeds and increasing the number of lasers per chip.
This could eventually lead to the development of terabit/s optical links – with rates fast enough to transfer the entire contents of a typical laptop in just one second.