Intel Claims Significant Breakthrough in Silicon Photonics Development

Intel Labs researchers say they have achieved an important new step in developing silicon photonics, the ability to transmit data using light. A paper published in Nature Photonics details Intel researchers' efforts to develop a silicon-based avalanche photodetector, or APD, a sensor that detects and amplifies light signals. Intel says this type of avalanche photodetector offers greater bandwidth and amplification abilities than conventional photodetectors. At the same time, Intel is looking for less expensive ways to build these types of photodetectors.

Researchers with Intel Labs are publishing a paper that looks to bring the company closer to developing silicon photonics-the ability to transit data through light pulses-for viable commercial uses.

The research paper, which is being published in the Dec. 7 edition of the scientific journal Nature Photonics, describes efforts by Intel engineers to build a silicon-based APD (avalanche photodetector) at a lower cost and that gives better overall performance than conventional photodetectors made of different materials.

The goal of photonics is to replace more conventional electrical interconnects that use copper wiring with on-chip components that use light to transmit data. In a world where companies such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and IBM are increasing the number of processing cores that can fit within an CPU, photonics is seen as a way to allow those developments to continue while simultaneously speeding up the vital connections that move data in and out of processors that are close together or even between servers that are separated from each other.

In the past several years, Intel and IBM have been the two companies looking to develop new ways to bring photonics into the commercial market. At the Intel Developer Forum in August, Intel CTO Justin Rattner said he expects silicon photonics to enter the market as early as 2010. Rattner added that Intel wants to see the technology developed first for desktop PCs instead of the data center to show that silicon photonics is affordable and ready for mainstream use.

During a discussion of the latest research, Mario Paniccia, an Intel Fellow and director of the company's Photonics Technology Laboratory, echoed those same sentiments and said the APDs that his engineers helped develop would go a long way to reduce costs while increasing performance.

"With APDs, we have an opportunity to develop very high-speed optical links with the ability to drive faster and lower-cost technology in and around the platform," Paniccia said.

An avalanche photodetector is a sensor that both detects light pulses and amplifies them as light is directed into the silicon. Unlike other photodetectors that absorb one photon pulse and produce one electron, an APD can absorb and then amplify the light pulse and produce tens or hundreds of electrical signals.