Scientists light up data transfer on chips

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US have developed a technique that allows them to use light, rather than...

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US have developed a technique that allows them to use light, rather than electricity, to send data between microchips.

The technology will greatly increase the speed at which data travels in computer and networking systems, according to one of the inventors.

The new technique relies on the same technology used in fibre optic communication, but adds a new material for building chips into the equation.

While computer chips are currently built using silicon, the new technique, called "silicon on sapphire", uses thin slices of silicon placed on top of a layer of synthetic sapphire to achieve its effects, according to Alyssa Apsel, co-inventor of the technology. Apsel worked on the project with Andreas Andreou, the technology's other co-inventor and a professor at Johns Hopkins.

The researchers expect that data transmitted using the new technology could move as much as 100 times faster than data sent over wires. The silicon-on-sapphire technology will also use less power than current chips.

When data is transmitted to the silicon-on-sapphire chip by a wire, it is then turned into light and beamed through the sapphire using a microscopic laser built onto the chip, Apsel said. The data is then sent to either another part of the chip or, using an optical fibre, to another chip. When the laser containing the data enters the new chip, an optical receiver circuit transforms the light back into electricity.

Although optical transmission and microscopic lasers are both almost 10 years old, the addition of the sapphire layer on the chip, through which the data is sent, represents a breakthrough. Apsel believe that commercial implementation of the technology could happen within a few years.

The new development could also help cut costs for high-speed transfer technologies. Apsel also sees potential applications for the technology in optical processing, as well as in local area networking.

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