IBM's nanophotonics means Exascale computing on the way

IBM claims it has made a breakthrough with laser based chips that could pave the way for Exascale computing.

Its silicon nanophotonics chip technology integrates both electrical and optical devices on the same piece of silicon. That means tiny, incredibly fast and power efficient chips that trump anything on the conventional market today.

IBM’s CMOS Integrated Silicon Nanophotonics comes after about a decade of research at its labs. It claims its technology offers “over 10X improvement in integration density” than is available with current manufacturing techniques – it’s going to “change and improve” the way chips communicate.

The density and electrical integration from IBM’s technology is “unprecedented,” it says: “A single transceiver channel with all accompanying optical and electrical circuitry occupies only 0.5mm(2) – 10 times smaller than previously announced by others. “

Using the nanophotonics IBM believes Exascale computing is visible in the distance, something that can perform an Exaflop, or a million trillion calculations in a single second. While we’re not ready just yet, “with optical communications embedded into processor chips, the prospect of building power-efficient computer systems at the Exaflop level is one step closer to reality,” says Dr. T.C. Chen at IBM Research. Supercomputers are big business and all of the technology major players with dedicated labs are vying for the top spot, that includes AMD, Intel and Nvidia.

Intel said earlier this year it has got the drop on silicon photonics with data capable of reaching 50 billion bit per second transfer speeds and scalable to 100Gbps and 400Gbps and higher. 
But IBM’s breakthrough, it says, promise “unprecedented increases” in silicon chip function and performance. It’d be a worthy addition to its swelling data centre business, something that will benefit extraordinarily from the estimated compute power. Plus, IBM’s technology can be produced on the front end of a standard CMOS manufacturing line requiring “no new or special tooling”. Transistors can sit on the same silicon layer with nanophotonics.

It’s because the coats in the labs have been working on ultra-compact active and passive silicon nanophotonics, all scaled down to the diffraction limit, which is the smallest size available for dielectric optics. 

Now that IBM has come up with the goods, the next step is to figure out a way to manufacture the process in a commercial foundry, using scaled CMOS processes. IBM says that by adding more processing modules to a regular CMOS fab flow, it enables a slew of silicon nanophotonic components including modulators, germanium photodetectors and ultra-compact wavelength division multiplexers integrated with CMOS circuitry.

If all goes to plan IBM will be able to manufacture single chip optical tranceivers in a standard CMOS foundry rather than the time consuming and expensive fusion of parts made with compound semiconductor technology.

IBM’s showing off its findings at the SEMICON event, Tokyo, in a presentation by Dr Yurii Vlasov.