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Photonics Light The Way of Microprocessors

By Kathy Lindsley

For more than half a century, continuous progress in the production of silicon-based electronic components has made possible a vast range of ever smaller, more powerful, more reliable and cheaper products. But conventional microelectronic technology is beginning to reach its limits. Companies including IBM, Intel and others as well as academic researchers believe photonics will light the way to the next generation of microprocessor, communication and sensing systems.

Nothing is faster than the speed of light…

Photonic Delay Device
Photonic Delay Device Integrated with Electronics on a Silicon Chip. It is used to slow light down so that it can be processed electronically.

“That’s really what it comes down to,” says Stefan F. Preble, associate professor of microsystems engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering and leader of RIT’s Nanophotonics Group. “Current computer technology is limited by how quickly electrons can move. So there’s definitely a motivation to use light for dealing with information.”

Preble’s group is developing ultra-small devices and systems that leverage the high bandwidth, low power, low latency and sensitivity that are possible with light. They are focusing on integrating nanophotonic devices on a silicon CMOS platform in order to take advantage of the advanced fabrication techniques used in the microelectronics industry. The goal is to directly integrate photonics with current electronic devices.

Although the tremendous potential of nanophotonics has generated much interest, development of the technology for practical use in computers and other products is in the very early stages. “Right now we’re really in the prehistorics of what we can do with photonics. At this point, it’s only possible to have on order of maybe 1,000 components integrated on a chip,” says Preble. “We’re developing the technologies, the architectures to scale that up to millions so that eventually we could have these incredibly powerful computers.” With advances it will be possible to dramatically accelerate the pace that photonics is integrated into integrated circuit technology. “All of the large semiconductor and networking companies we are all familiar with have made large investments in the technology. There are now commercial products available and in just a few years integrated photonics will be commonplace in all data centers,” says Preble.