IBM Details Latest Optical Chip Development

IBM research unveiled a new set of technologies to use light in place of standard wires and connections to transmit data on circuit boards.

IBM researchers are preparing to demonstrate their latest efforts to use light pulses instead of electrical signals to transmit data at greater speeds, which could make it easier to download video or crunch data.

Researchers for the Armonk, N.Y., company will present two papers on Feb. 28 at the 2008 Optical Fiber Communications Conference in San Diego that build on a prototype optical transceiver capable of 160 gigabits per second (Gbps) that company researchers unveiled at last year's show.

In these new papers, IBM researchers will discuss how the technology will eventually allow for ultra-fast transmission of data - perhaps as much as eight terabits per second, or eight trillion bits per second, which is the equivalent of 5,000 high-definition video stream - while using very little power.

At the 2008 conference, IBM researchers are also discussing several developments that will eventually bring all of these optical technologies on a circuit board. The first of these new developments is an optical data bus, which replaces a traditional electrical bus, to exchange data from one chip to another.

The data bus helps create significant bandwidth - 10Gbps - between the chips by using a number of parallel lines to transmit large amount of data. By using optics, the researchers have also found a way to cut down on the power used by traditional electrical circuitry, while increasing the distance data can travel between two points.

Eye on Cost

IBM is also discussing a new optical transceiver module that contains 24 transmitters and 24 receiver channels that will allow data to travel up to 300 Gbps, which the company's researchers are claiming is the fastest optical transfer that has ever been demonstrated.

The researchers then packaged the optical technology into a hybrid module called an "Optochip," which can be added to the circuit board and then mass produced.

While researchers have pushed the envelope to show the ability of how light can transmit data, they also kept an eye on cost, which means the technology could come to the commercial market in the not-so-distant future. In this case, IBM's engineers used low-cost, vertical-cavity surface emitting lasers within the modules and standard CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) technology to convert data between electrical and optical forms.

The result is an extremely dense module with a significant increase in bandwidth.

While IBM does not have a specific date for when this technology could be commercially available, it appears that it will first appear in the company's supercomputers. This development will allow these massive machines to increase their performance well beyond the petaflop - a quadrillion calculations per second - level.

For enterprises, the technology could help development servers that can support hundreds of processors within a single system. For consumers, the development of this type of optical transceiver technology could lead to better transmission of high-definition video.

Other companies and universities are also exploring how light can improve the connection between chips. In 2007, Intel announced that it had developed its own silicon photonics technique that uses tiny lasers to transmit data. So far, the chip maker has demonstrated laser modules that send data at 40Gbps.