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Lighting the Way for The Next Era of Silicon Microelectronics

Photo credit: Amir Atabaki

Scientists from Boston University, University of Colorado Boulder, the University of California Berkeley, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology joined forces to create a new method for fabricating silicon chips that could change the way we communicate. These silicon chips rely on light, and cost about as much as traditional chip technology.

This new solution for fabricating bulk silicon microelectronic chips could provide the solution for the problem with electrical signals bottlenecking between current microelectronic chips. This conundrum has been a major roadblock to scientists for some time; traditional data transfers have a limit to how fast and far they can transfer data. Additionally, current chips expend an enormous amount of energy, and can generate dangerous levels of heat. But this new technology is not hampered by electrical wires to make a communication connection.

“Instead of a single wire carrying around 10 gigabits per second, you can have a single optical fiber carrying 10 to 20 terabits per second—so a thousand times more in the same footprint. If you replace a wire with an optical fiber, there are two ways you win. First, with light, you can send data at much higher frequencies without significant loss of energy as there is with copper wiring. Second, with optics, you can use many different colors of light in one fiber and each one can carry a data channel. The fibers can also be packed more closely together than copper wires can without crosstalk.”

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Assistant Professor Milos Popovic (ECE), one of the principal investigators of the study

A manufacturing roadblock had previously prevented the integration of photonic capabilities onto processors. Modern processors operate thanks to an industrial semiconductor manufacturing process. This process is capable of stamping out up to a billion transistors that all work together on a single chip. Unfortunately, this process can be extremely delicate; creating a new approach that would allow researchers to include optical devices on chips while simultaneously maintaining current electrical capabilities proved no easy task.

The method developed by the research team introduces a set of new material layers. These layers are added into the photonic processing portion of a bulk silicon chip. By changing the materials, the chip allows for optical communication — but has no impact on the electronics involved. Further research indicates that this process could easily be introduced into the current levels of manufacturing.

Researchers believe this platform, which combines photonics with cutting edge bulk silicon microelectronic chips, will deliver faster and more energy efficient communication than we’ve ever seen before.

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