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by Mike Zazaian September 18, 2006 - 10:02am, 9 Comments

A bundle of fiber optic wires

Intel will announce today their creation of a computer chip that could eliminate bottlenecks by using laser beams, not electrical wires, to transmit data.

While innovations in computer hardware constantly occur as companies strive to grab market share, breakthroughs such as these are rare. The addition of laser capabilities to new processors would allow for a currently unreachable standard of compactness and speed in computing.

The genesis of the chip came from the combined effort of Intel, the world’s largest processor manufacturer, and researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The new laser-silicon chips were created by bonding a layer of light-emitting indium phosphide to a chip’s surface, then etching small channels through which the light can travel. The resulting chip can use thousands of tiny lasers to flicker on and off billions of times per second, thus transmitting binary code at an impossibly rapid rate.

And while these achievements might seem impressive, they may be only the beginning. According to Eli Yablonovitch, a physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles,

This is a field that has just begun exploding in the past 18 months. There is going to be a lot more optical communications in computing than people have thought.

In the past such chips have been impossible because prior attempts to meld light-emitting materials onto have melted the silicon. That’s where UCSB stepped in. University researchers devised a method whereby iridium phosphate could be bonded with silicon without melting the chip’s surface. By using an electrically charged oxide gas just 25 atoms thick, they were able to heat and press the layer of oxide to a standard silicon chip, thus creating a hybrid that transmits information both through wires and beams of light.

While the new laser-emitting chips certainly mean a facelift for computing, they may spark a surge in the implementation of fiber-optics as well. John E. Bowers, the director of the Multidisciplinary Optical Switching Technology Center at UCSB, believes that this development may revolutionize the computing industry:

Photonics has been a low-volume cottage industry. Everything will change and laser communications will be everywhere, including fiber to the home.

[via cnet]