Intel scientists create affordable light modulator, higher bandwidth communications, computing on the horizon

As broadcasters continue to grapple with all of the implications of the HD world, an announcement last week from Intel Corp. may give them reason to pause and contemplate what might be possible in the not so far-off future.

Scientists from Intel reported in the Feb. 12 edition of the journal Nature on the development of a silicon manufacturing process to create a fast photonic modulator –a transistor-like device that can encode data onto a light beam. The development is seen as an important step that could lead to low-cost, high-bandwidth fiber optic connections among PCs and servers and eventually inside computers as well.

"This is a significant step toward building optical devices that move data around inside a computer at the speed of light," said Patrick Gelsinger, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Intel. "It is the kind of breakthrough that ripples across an industry over time enabling other new devices and applications. It could help make the Internet run faster, build much faster high-performance computers and enable high bandwidth applications like ultra-high-definition displays or vision recognition systems."

To achieve their results, Intel researchers split a beam of light into two separate beams as it passed through silicon. Using a novel transistor-like device to hit one beam with an electric charge, they induced a phase shift.

When the two beams of light were re-combined the phase shift induced between the two arms makes the light exiting the chip go on and off at over 1 GHz (one billion bits of data per second), 50 times faster than previously produced on silicon. This on and off pattern of light can be translated into the 1's and 0's needed to transmit data.

At the heart of the development is the fact that silicon is not opaque to infrared light, which allows infrared light to be routed in the chip. That light is the same wavelength typically used for optical communications.

“The way electrical charges move around in a transistor when voltage is applied can be used to change the behavior of light as it passes through these charges," said Intel director of silicon photonics research Mario Paniccia. “This led us to explore manipulating the properties of light, such as phase and amplitude, to produce silicon-based optical devices."

While it’s uncertain what form this technology ultimately will take, it’s one day likely to touch how video data is routed around and between facilities and possibly to the home.

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