IBM said today that it has made new breakthroughs in an industry-wide race to create laser-based chips that can send data at high speeds through computers.
Big Blue told the Wall Street Journal that it has made advances in optical communications components using silicon, which is the main material used in conventional electrical chips. The IBM chips, still in an experimental stage, use lasers to send data in the form of pulses of light through the silicon chips.
If IBM can commercialize the technology in the years ahead, it could make chips that can send data at a rate of a trillion bits per second. That is 25 times the capacity of similar optical components used in the fastest computers today.
Lasers are used to send pulses of light through stretched glass known as fiber optic cables for long-distance communications today. But the bottleneck has always been in the hand-off, when the data reaches the end of the fiber optic network and merges with an electrical network within a computer.
Silicon photonics, as the field is called, has been under research for years as the potential answer. Besides IBM, Intel and Luxtera have been working on silicon components to get past the bottleneck, by using chips that essentially replicate the optical functions on a much tinier scale inside a chip.
Carlsbad, Calif.-based Luxtera, a nine-year-old startup, was the first to commercialize silicon photonics and it disputes the value of IBM’s breakthrough, saying Luxtera’s current chips are already more capable than the technology described by IBM. Luxtera currently makes 40-gigabit per second chips that can connect two computers starting at a $150 to $200. Over time, that cost will drop.
Yurii Vlasov, manager of IBM’s silicon integrated nanophotonics effort, told the WSJ that his group’s first commercial products could hit the market in three to five years.