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IBM makes chip breakthrough to reduce cost of computer communications

IBM researchers have developed a microchip that, using existing manufacturing techniques, should make the transfer of data quicker, more efficient and cheaper.

The breakthrough technology, dubbed silicon nanophotonics, "is a result of more than a decade of pioneering research at IBM," according to Dr John Kelly, senior vice president and director of IBM Research. "This allows us to move silicon nanophonetics technology into a real-world manufacturing environment that will have impact across a range of applications."

The team has produced a 90nm computer chip that integrates both optical components, which are able to send and receive data over optical links, and electrical circuits, meaning that frequencies of light, rather than electrical signals, will be used in the transmission of data.

Some data centres already employ optical cables, but require special equipment to convert the light-encoded information into electricity-based versions. The new all-in-one chip enables this conversion to take place onboard, which would help lower computer communication costs.

Multiple optical data streams of different wavelengths can be fed into a single channel and light has the additional advantage of being able to travel faster than electricity. This means the technology can transport more data at faster rates, at any one time.

The chip can communicate at data rates of up to 25Gbps, but combinations of multiple devices can lead to significantly higher transfer speeds.

According to IBM, this marks the first time silicon nanophotonics technology has been successfully built into a sub-100nm chip.

The technology is expected to bring its benefits primarily to large-scale systems which need to process Big Data, such as supercomputers and multiple linked servers, though it could eventually also filter through to consumer products.

Dr Solomon Assefa, an IBM Research nanophotonics scientist who was involved in the project, will present further information about the breakthrough at the upcoming IEEE International Electronic Devices Meeting in San Francisco.