IBM manufactures light-based 'nanophotonic' chips to let the terabytes flow

IBM's taken a large step toward computer chips that use photons instead of electrons by manufacturing the first 90nm silicon-based optical processing modules. It did so using the CMOS nanophotonics technology we first saw back in 2010, creating tranceivers capable of 25Gbps transfer speeds. By multiplexing a large number of those streams to a single fibre, "terrabytes of data" per second could flow between distant computer systems," according to IBM. The 90 nanometer light circuits should allow data-hungry servers or supercomputers to scale up rapidly in speed "for the next decade, and at the desired low cost," according to the researchers. It's now primed for commercial development, meaning we could see an end to bottlenecks in systems "a few centimeters or a few kilometers" apart from each other. Check the PR for the detailed technical skinny.

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From the Lab to the Fab: IBM Lights Up Silicon Chips to Tackle Big Data

• Technology Breakthrough Demonstrates Feasibility of Silicon Nanophotonics for Chip Manufacturing
• Light Pulses Can Move Data at Blazing Speeds to Help Solve Bandwidth Limitations of Servers, Datacenters and Supercomputers
• After More Than a Decade of Research, Silicon Nanophotonics is Ready for Development of Commercial Applications

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., – 10 December, 2012: IBM (NYSE: IBM) announced today a major advance in optical communications by verifying in a manufacturing environment the ability to use light instead of electrical signals to transmit information for future computing. The breakthrough technology – called "silicon nanophotonics" – allows the integration of different optical components side-by-side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip using, for the first time, sub-100nm semiconductor technology.

Silicon nanophotonics takes advantage of pulses of light for communication and provides a super highway for large volumes of data to move at rapid speeds between computer chips in servers, large datacenters, and supercomputers, thus alleviating the limitations of congested data traffic and high-cost traditional interconnects.

"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."

The amount of data being created and transmitted over enterprise networks continues to grow due to an explosion of new applications and services. Silicon nanophotonics, now primed for commercial development, can enable the industry to keep pace with increasing demands in chip performance and computing power.

Business are entering a new era of computing that requires systems to process and analyze, in real-time, huge volumes of information known as Big Data. Silicon nanophotonics technology provides answers to Big Data challenges by seamlessly connecting various parts of large systems, whether few centimeters or few kilometers apart from each other, and move terabytes of data via pulses of light through optical fibers.

Building on its initial proof of concept in 2010, IBM has solved the key challenges of transferring the silicon nanophotonics technology into the commercial foundry. By adding a few processing modules into a high-performance 90nm CMOS fabrication line, a variety of silicon nanophotonics components such as wavelength division multiplexers (WDM), modulators, and detectors are integrated side-by-side with a CMOS electrical circuitry. As a result, single-chip optical communications transceivers can be manufactured in a conventional semiconductor foundry, providing significant cost reduction over traditional approaches.

"Among a number of CMOS technology nodes available at IBM, we have chosen the 90nm technology node as a base for integrating silicon nanophotonics because it will meet the performance requirements for optical communications for the next decade, and at the desired low cost," said Dr. Yurii A. Vlasov, Manager of the Silicon Nanophotonics Project at IBM Research.

IBM's CMOS nanophotonics technology demonstrates transceivers to exceed the data rate of 25Gbps per channel. In addition, the technology is capable of feeding a number of parallel optical data streams into a single fiber by utilizing compact on-chip wavelength-division multiplexing devices. The ability to multiplex large data streams at high data rates will allow future scaling of optical communications capable of delivering terabytes of data between distant parts of computer systems.

Further details will be presented this week by Dr. Solomon Assefa at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) in the talk titled, "A 90nm CMOS Integrated Nano-Photonics Technology for 25Gbps WDM Optical Communications Applications." Additional papers being presented by IBM at IEDM can be seen here.

Additional information on the project can be found at