April 25, 2004, Updated September 13, 2012

Intel Israel’s development is a significant step toward building optical devices that move data around inside a computer at the speed of light.” Israeli researchers at Intel have achieved a breakthrough in chip development that will enable computers to operate at 10 times the current speed.

In a development that promises to change the world of computing and telecommunications within five to 10 years, the electro-optic chips developed during the past year and a half at Intel’s Jerusalem facility will replace the standard electronic chips used for communications between computer components. This will allow this communication to be conducted at the speed of light – 10 times the current speed.

Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, has been operating in Israel since 1974, and has 5,200 employees at its four main development centers in Jerusalem, Haifa, Kiryat Gat and Petah Tikva.

According to a report in Ha’aretz, the Israeli team for the first time succeeded in developing electro-optical chipsets based on silicon wafers capable of converting electronic signals to optic signals within the chip. They have the potential to be mass-produced at the same cost as standard electronic chips. Currently, the manufacturing cost of an optical chip which is not made from silicon runs into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

The ability to build a fast photonic (fiber optic) modulator from standard silicon could lead to very low-cost, high-bandwidth fiber optic connections among PCs, servers and other electronic devices, and eventually inside computers as well.

“Today, the fast processors operate at speeds of three gigahertz, but their surroundings still work at speeds of hundreds of megahertz and, therefore, don’t succeed in exploiting their speeds,” Amir Elstein, the co-CEO of Intel Israel and director of Intel’s Jerusalem facility, told Ha’aretz. “When the chips, the processor and the ports of the computer speak at the same speed, which will be about 10 gigahertz, the computer’s capability will be totally different,” he added.

The new development will also change the multi-leg appearance of today’s chipsets. “There will still be several legs on each chip, but most of the information will be transferred via a single optic opening of one optic port,” Elstein said.

An article on the development which appeared recently in the journal Nature explained the innovation.

“Researchers split a beam of light into two separate beams as it passed through silicon, and then used a novel transistor-like device to hit one beam with an electric charge, inducing a `phase shift.’ When the two beams of light are recombined, the phase shift induced between the two arms makes the light exiting the chip go on and off at over one gigahertz (one billion bits of data per second), 50 times faster than previously produced on silicon. This on and off pattern of light can be translated into the 1’s and 0’s needed to transmit data.”

Patrick Gelsinger, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Intel, called Intel Israel’s development “a significant step toward building optical devices that move data around inside a computer at the speed of light. It is the kind of breakthrough that ripples across an industry over time, enabling other new devices and applications. It could help make the Internet run faster, build much faster high-performance computers and enable high bandwidth applications like ultra-high-definition displays or vision recognition systems.”

Silicon Photonics research at Intel began in the mid-1990s with efforts to test and measure transistors switching inside microprocessors optically. Although silicon appears opaque to the naked eye, it is transparent to infrared light.

“Just as Superman’s X-ray vision allows him to see through walls, if you had infrared vision you could see through silicon,” said Mario Paniccia, director of silicon photonics research at Intel. “This makes it possible to route infrared light in silicon, which is the same wavelength typically used for optical communications. The way electrical charges move around in a transistor when voltage is applied can be used to change the behavior of light as it passes through these charges. This led us to explore manipulating the properties of light, such as phase and amplitude, to produce silicon-based optical devices.”

The 1GHz of today’s experimental device equates to a billion bits of information traveling down a single fiber. Intel researchers think they can scale the technology up to 10GHz or faster in the future. A single photonic link can carry multiple, simultaneous data channels at the same speed by using different colors of light, just like multiple radio stations are transmitted to a car radio or hundreds of channels on a cable TV. Additionally, fiber-optic cables are immune to electro-magnetic interference and cross-talk, which makes traditional high-speed copper interconnects difficult to build.

“We have a long-term research program in place to explore how we can apply our silicon expertise in other areas with a long-term goal of developing integrated optical devices,” Paniccia said.

Intel Israel’s Elstein said that the company has not yet completed planning the production of the new optical devices, but that Intel’s Kiryat Gat plant may be involved. “This is the greatest R&D success. There is no need to build new factories – faster chips can be manufactured at lower cost, with the same production infrastructure used in existing facilities. We took a theoretical physical affect and, using existing infrastructure, moved it up to a level that was previously impossible to implement.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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