Want faster systems? Grow a laser on the chip

Using lasers to communicate between microprocessors and systems will make electronics much faster. The race is on and a laser has now been grown directly on a chip, say scientists.

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Credit: Thinkstock

One of the things that has always been a bottleneck in electronics has been getting the data in and out of the chip. The silicon semiconductor, within itself, communicates faster than it does with the surrounding system.

That may be about to change, though. A laser incorporated onto the semiconductor could be the answer to solving the slowdown, think scientists. And they now believe they know how to do it: Simply grow the laser straight onto the silicon.

Faster-than-ever-before communications could be possible with the technique, think the scientists.

In the same way that light, delivered by fiber optic, sends data faster than electrons do along a copper wire, the light via laser system would get the ones and zeroes out of the chip quicker and into the surrounding electronics faster. Wires could become obsolete.

“Conventional electrical interconnects between computer chips and systems” are too slow, Cardiff University explains in its news release.

Researchers “have therefore turned to light as a potential ultra-fast connector,” the university says. Cardiff University, in the UK led the research along with contributions from University College London and the University of Sheffield.

The laser is actually grown on the silicon substrate. Silicon is the material used to create semiconductors and is found in all electronics.

“Communications and healthcare, to energy generation” could all benefit from the faster chip-to-system output, the university says.

The British-designed on-chip, grown-laser solution, isn’t the only microprocessor using light, or photonics as it’s called. The photonics area is highly active and there’s a race to get the best solution.

University of California Berkeley researchers are combining transistors with photonics to guide light with limited loss. They’re doing that in the chip itself, taking advantage of silicon-germanium’s light-absorbing ability, and have built prototype chips in a regular foundry that work, they say. It proves the chips can be mass-produced, they believe.

High speed, low power electrical links will be possible with its technology, the UC Berkeley scientist think. The reason is primarily because system designers won’t need to incorporate energy-hogging repeaters. Less power and longer distances, along with cheap, mass production of chips are major objectives for Internet of Things, many think. The UC Berkeley crew say that their system can provide it.

The “practical laser” as the University of Cardiff scientists describe their invention is a breakthrough too. It’s not been easy, though, they say.

“It has been difficult to combine a semiconductor laser, the ideal source of light, with silicon,” the university says.

The 1300 nm wavelength laser is “shown to work,” Professor Huiyun Liu, one of the researchers there says. It can operate at 120 degrees Celsius and function for 100,000 hours, Liu believes.

“Realizing electrically-pumped lasers based on Si substrates is a fundamental step towards silicon photonics,” Professor Peter Smowton, of Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, says.

“It will clearly transform computing and the digital economy, revolutionize healthcare through patient monitoring, and provide a step-change in energy efficiency,” he says. The faster you can get chip-to-system, the faster the electronics function.

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