IBM makes photonic chip breakthrough

IBM has made a breakthrough with commercialisation high speed photonics chips – using light to transmit data rather than electrons.

The advances in production mean that silicon photonics components will now be more easily integrated into conventional silicon electronics.

“This technology breakthrough is a result of more than a decade of pioneering research at IBM,” said Dr. John E. Kelly, Senior Vice President and Director of IBM Research. “This allows us to move silicon nanophotonics technology into a real-world manufacturing environment that will have impact across a range of applications.” 

Researchers across the world have been attempting to integrate the two technologies into the same chip, but photonics components have been difficult to integrate onto the same piece of silicon, using the same foundry production methods.   

Now IBM has managed to house the nanophotonics components, such as wavelength division multiplexers, modulators and detectors needed transmit data communications using waves of light, fitting them alongside the electronics components.

This has been done using 90nm CMOS technology.   While this may be a higher process than the leading edge chips produced by semiconductor firms currently, the photonics components will allow much faster data transfers, at around 25Gbps per channel.

Scaling the technology will allow large data streams to be combined, delivering terabytes of data between large networks, IBM said.

This will have major benefits for servers supporting large amounts of data. IBM said that silicon nanophotonics “provides answers to big data challenges” by allowing huge amounts of information to be shifted across systems, whether they be centimetres or kilometres apart.

IBM has spent a decade attempting to create a production method that will allow commercialising photonic chips.  One of the problems has been in reducing the size of the photonics technology to fit with the transistors and other components.

Prior to its announcement today, IBM developed its proof of concept photonics technology back in 2010.

IBM is not the only major firm with its eye on photonics technology.  Intel is also looking to develop chips using optical interconnects.