Supercomputing gets boost with optical diode

There was more good news for the introduction of lightning-fast photonic processing with the development of a new optical device that should easily transmit signals into computer chips.

Scientists across the world are working to develop ultrafast photonics technology based on photons of light rather than electrons. But while optical information can be sent at lighting fast speeds, when it gets to a computer it can take a lot of time to convert it into electrical signal.

With fibreoptics sending vast swathes of information, such as that coming from the Large Hadron Collider, expensive equipment is needed to convert it, and information is often open to cyberattacks, at least according to one group of researchers.

A team at the University of Purdue believe they have made a significant breakthrough with an optical diode that is tiny enough to cram millions directly onto a computer chip.  This means that fibreoptics could be plugged directly into computers, without the need for translating signals.

Consisting of two silicon rings the passive optical diode is 10 microns in diameter, and does not require any external assistance when fitted onto a computer chip, a crucial difference compared to other similar diodes.  The researchers have engineered it to be capable of transmitting in just one direction, which is fundamental as part of a logic circuit.

The method involves light from an optical fibre passing through the two silicon rings, with one ring sending the information back out and one passing the information forward, allowing for a one way transmission.  A broader frequency range is possible by heating the rings to tune them.

The diode could help increase the speed of supercomputers by connecting numerous processors together, the researchers say. One of the major bottlenecks in processing power is the communication between individual ‘superchips’.

Interestingly, the team reckons that the device is pretty much ready for commercialisation already, and is compatible with standard CMOS chip production methods.