“Silicon Nanophotonics” Integrates Optical Components With Electrical Circuits


Cross-sectional view of an IBM Silicon Nanophotonics chip combining optical and electrical circuits. Credit: IBM Research

IBM announced an advance in the ability to use light instead of electrical signals for information transmission in future computing applications. “Silicon nanophotonics” allows the integration of different optical components side-by-side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip, using sub-100nm semiconductor technology.

Dr. Solomon Assefa will present details at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) this week. Silicon nanophotonics takes advantage of the pulses of light for moving large volumes of data at high speeds between computer chips in servers, large data centers, and supercomputers, alleviating the limitations of the congested data traffic.


Angled view of IBM silicon nanophotonic chip. Information super highway showing blue optical waveguides transmitting high-speed optical signals and yellow copper wires carrying high-speed electrical signals. Credit: IBM Research

The breakthrough came after more than a decade of research at IBM and allowed IBM to move the silicon nanophotonics technology into the real-world manufacturing environment, where it will have an impact.

The commercial development of silicon nanophotonics enables the industry to keep pace with the increasing demands in chip performance and computing power. Real-time analysis and processing create huge volumes of data. Silicon nanophotonics allows the data to be connected to various parts of large systems, whether they are close together or a few kilometers apart. Terabytes of data can be moved through pulses of light in optical fibers.

IBM initially showed the technology in a proof of concept in 2010. The company has solved the challenges of transferring the technology into a commercial environment by adding a few processing modules into a high-performance 90nm CMOS fabrication line.

The silicon nanophotonics components such as wavelength division multiplexers (WDM), modulators, and detectors are integrated side-by-side with a CMOS electrical circuitry. The result is single-chip optical communications transceivers that can be manufactured in a conventional semiconductor foundry, providing cost reduction over traditional approaches.

IBM’s technology demonstrates transceivers that exceed 25Gps per channel in data transmission rates. The ability to multiplex large data streams at high data rates will allow the scaling of optical communications, allowing the delivery of terabytes of data between distant parts of a computer system.

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