IBM moves optical computing into the real world

Posted by Kate Taylor

IBM's developed a way of integrating optical computing onto standard silicon chips using standard 90-nanometer semiconductor manufacturing processes.

Dubbed 'silicon nanophotonics', the technology allows the integration of different optical components side-by-side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip. Using pulses of light for communication via optical fibers makes huge amounts of data transfer possible at high speed.

"This technology breakthrough is a result of more than a decade of pioneering research at IBM," says 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."

The new development builds on work reported by IBM two years ago. Back then, though, the company hadn't yet found a way to build the technology in a commercial foundry.

But now, by adding a few processing modules into a high-performance 90nm CMOS fabrication line, it's been able to integrate a whole variety of silicon nanophotonics components such as wavelength division multiplexers (WDM), modulators and detectors side-by-side with a CMOS electrical circuitry.

As a result, single-chip optical communications transceivers can be manufactured in a conventional semiconductor foundry, making them a commercially viable proposition.  

IBM says its transceivers can hit a data rate of 25Gbps per channel, and the technology can also feed a number of parallel optical data streams into a single fiber by using 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," it says.