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2015

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This chip is a huge step forward in fiber optic communications. University of Colorado researchers combined electrons and photons within a single chip for this landmark development. (all images via University of Colorado & Glenn Asakawa)

 

Here is a claim and a wish I've heard for decades.


Advances in technology never cease to amaze no matter how big or small, but the University of Colorado takes the cake for best innovation of 2015. The university's researchers have created the first full-fledged processor that transmits data using light instead of electricity. This was done by successfully combining electrons and photons within a single microprocessor. So what does this all mean? It's a big development that could lead to ultrafast, low power data crunching. It also marks a major step for fiber optic communication.

 

To get the successful outcome, researchers put two processor cores with more than 70 million transistors and 850 photonic components on a chip. They were then able to create the processor in a foundry that produces high performance computer chips on a mass scale. This means the design can be easily and quickly made up for commercial production. Though the design isn't completely photonic the processor is still pretty impressive with an output of 300Gbps per square millimeter – 10 to 50 times the normal speed.


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(Left) "The light-enabled microprocessor, a 3 x 6 millimeter chip, installed on a circuit board." (Right) "Electrical signals are encoded on light waves in this optical transmitter consisting of a spoked ring modulator, monitoring photodiode (left) and light access port (bottom)"

 

Fiber optic communication is a big goal for many researchers and organizations due to its many advances. It supports greater bandwidth , carries data at higher speeds over larger distances, and uses less energy in general, which is good news for a society that aims to consume less power. There have been some advances in fiber optic technology, but up until now it has proven difficult to merge photonics and computer chips together. Now, these University of Colorado researchers have jumped over that hurdle.

 

But does the chip actually work? Researchers ran several test and showed that the chip was able to run various computer programs that required it to send and receive instructions and data from memory. This is how they were able to discover the chip had a bandwidth density of 300 Gbps.

 

“The advantage with optical is that with the same amount of power, you can go a few centimeters, a few meters or a few kilometers," said study co-lead author Chen Sun. "For high-speed electrical links, 1 meter is about the limit before you need repeaters to regenerate the electrical signal, and that quickly increases the amount of power needed. For an electrical signal to travel 1 kilometer, you'd need thousands of picojoules for each bit.”

 

If there's further advances in the technology not only will it mean posting Facebook statues as lightening fast speed, it also means data centers will be more green. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, data centers used an estimated 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2013, which is around 2 percent of electricity consumed in the United States. Considering those numbers, this is a great way to promote a greener society.

 

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