Electronic Design

IBM Electro-Optic Modulator Could Lead To Supercomputer-On-Chip

IBM researchers have constructed a way to send pulses of light through silicon, a process that can substitute sending electrical signals over wires and ultimately shrink the size of today's largest supercomputers. In a paper published in the journal Optics Express, IBM researchers detailed what the industry calls the silicon Mach-Zehnder electro-optic modulator, which converts electrical signals into pulses of light. Using light instead of wires to send information between processor cores can be 100 times faster and use 10 times less power than wires, according to IBM. Researchers hope the advancement will enable the rapid and compact transfer of information between multiple cores on a chip. Since the modulator is 100 to 1,000 times smaller than other modulators of its kind, it will one day enable optical routing networks to be integrated on a single chip, the company said. That means that supercomputers — which now consist of thousands of processors connected by miles of copper wire — could one day fit into a laptop PC. Energy consumption will also be slashed, according to IBM. Supercomputers that presently use enough energy to power hundreds of homes will only expend the energy of a lightbulb. As the industry continues to pack more computing cores on a chip, current on-chip communications technology would overheat and be too slow to handle a major increase in workload, according to T.C. Chen, vice president of science and technology for IBM Research. "What we have done is a significant step toward building a vastly smaller and more power-efficient way to connect those cores, in a way that nobody has done before," Chen said in a statement. Will Green, lead scientist on the project, said the research is a major advancement in the field of on-chip silicon nanophotonics. "Just like fiber optic networks have enabled the rapid expansion of the Internet by enabling users to exchange huge amounts of data from anywhere in the world, IBM's technology is bringing similar capabilities to the computer chip," Green said.

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