Pursuit of Performance

Silicon Photonics: Laser Data Blasters Inside Your Next Computer?

Ken Kaplan Executive Editor, iQ by Intel

We’d all have laser beam chips inside our personal devices if Mario Paniccia had his way. This is not just a pipe dream for the Intel scientist.

His team’s silicon photonics inventions are already helping Facebook redesign computer datacenters to meet skyrocketing growth in Internet traffic.

After a decade of tuning silicon computer chips to work with light wave properties, Paniccia and his team have made several silicon photonic breakthroughs that could replace copper with fiber optics, bringing the superfast data transfer speed of light to anything that computes and connects to the Internet.


Imagine moving your mega collection of digital photos from your phone to your laptop in seconds or downloading from the Internet every existing Marvel film and TV show in just minutes. It’s almost unimaginable today, but could soon be the norm when light waves become the main mode of data transportation.
A set of silicon photonic devices being developed by Paniccia and his team include lasers, modulators and photodetectors, some that can move data at speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second. That’s five times faster than Thunderbolt 2 connector technology available in new MacBook Pro notebooks and 20 times faster than USB 3.0 plugs on many computers today.

Explosion of Data

Silicon photonics may not ring a bell today, but it could become an essential for everyday technologies as the world evolves into a place where 25 billion devices are connected to the Internet, which is set to happen by 2015 according to Cisco

Paniccia, director of Intel Photonics lab, said that copper wires widely used today for digital communications are reaching physical limits. As more people with more digital devices feed the explosion of data, accessing and sharing data could get a big boost form silicon photonic devices, which Paniccia said are designed to drive down costs of building optical communications capabilities into big datacenters and eventually personal computing devices.

“As we scale in datacenters and high performance computing, there are handhelds, clients, 3-D TVs and high resolution monitors that are going to want and consume more bandwidth,” said Paniccia. “We’re showing the ability to deliver that bandwidth through a single chip based on silicon photonics.”

Silicon photonics combines the technology of photonics – the transmission, control and detection of light with the efficiency and lower cost of silicon chip manufacturing.

A short animation about how silicon photonics works. 

While silicon is not good at emitting light, it is good at confining and routing light, so it’s a good material for the cavity of the laser. The silicon routes the photons causing them to ricochet at ever-increasing intensity, ping-ponging at the atomic level until eventually shooting out in a laser beam of light.

The silicon laser is just one of several silicon photonic breakthroughs poised to aid our growing dependency on creating, sharing and accessing digital information.

The biggest initial impact of these innovations will be around the design of datacenters, which are the computer powerhouses for more companies and industries.

“Data center operators are…limited in how they lay out their equipment [and] design their datacenters,” said Andy Lawrence, vice president of research for data center technologies with analyst firm 451 Group. “Silicon photonics should liberate designers.”

Who knows, if Paniccia gets his wish, someday soon we’ll have silicon lasers inside all of our digital devices, beaming our data on the speed of light.

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