A pair of breakthroughs in the field of silicon photonics by researchers at the
The research team, led by CU-Boulder researcher
Popovic and his colleagues created two different optical modulators—structures that detect electrical signals and translate them into optical waves—that can be fabricated within the same processes already used in industry to create today’s state-of-the-art electronic microprocessors. The modulators are described in a recent issue of the journal Optics Letters.
First laid out in 1965, Moore’s Law predicted that the size of the transistors used in microprocessors could be shrunk by half about every two years for the same production cost, allowing twice as many transistors to be placed on the same-sized silicon chip. The net effect would be a doubling of computing speed every couple of years.
The projection has held true until relatively recently. While transistors continue to get smaller, halving their size today no longer leads to a doubling of computing speed. That’s because the limiting factor in microelectronics is now the power that’s needed to keep the microprocessors running. The vast amount of electricity required to flip on and off tiny, densely packed transistors causes excessive heat buildup.
“The transistors will keep shrinking and they’ll be able to continue giving you more and more computing performance,” Popovic said. “But in order to be able to actually take advantage of that you need to enable energy-efficient communication links.”
Microelectronics also are limited by the fact that placing electrical wires that carry data too closely together can result in “cross talk” between the wires.
In the last half-dozen years, microprocessor manufacturers, such as
Using light waves instead of electrical wires for microprocessor communication functions could eliminate the limitations now faced by conventional microprocessors and extend Moore’s Law into the future, Popovic said.
Optical communication circuits, known as photonics, have two main advantages over communication that relies on conventional wires: Using light has the potential to be brutally energy efficient, and a single fiber-optic strand can carry a thousand different wavelengths of light at the same time, allowing for multiple communications to be carried simultaneously in a small space and eliminating cross talk.
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