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Intel cranks up the speed on fiber for computers

It's another optoelectronics prototype. The momentum is building.

Researchers at Intel this week are showing off an silicon modulator that can pass 40 gigabits of data in a second, a new record that indicates that fiber-inside-computers is really coming.

Still life of 40-gbps modulator Intel

A modulator is an component from the fiber optic industry. It essentially chops up light from a laser into blips that ultimately will be understood as 1s and 0s by a computer. Right now, computers (and chips) pass signals via electrons traveling along metal wires. Metal wires give off heat, which has created an energy crisis inside computer.

By contrast, fiber optics transmit data with photons, which are faster than electrons and don't give off heat. The catch? The components for creating a fiber network are historically big, expensive and finicky. Chip engineers often call producing fiber a black art.

For the past several years, Intel, Primarion, IBM and others have been coming up with ways to mass produce optical components on standard silicon manufacturing lines. There have been prototypes for modulators, lasers, and other parts. (We started writing about this in 2001.)

Intel first came out with a 1GHz silicon modulator in 2004. It then upped the speed to 10 gigabits per second a year later. This latest component passes 4 times as much data, uses less energy and is smaller. Thus, it might cost less too.

How does it work? Project leader Ansheng Liu describes it in his blog:

"The intensity of the light transmitted through the Mach-Zehnder interferometer is modulated by modulating the phase difference between the interferometer's two arms," he wrote. That clear? It transcends my Speed Racer level of scientific understanding, but I'll take his word for it.

Intel, among others, has projected that optical components may start getting integrated into computers toward the end of the decade. At first, optical parts will be separate chips. Later, optical parts will get integrated into chips. And ultimately that means faster cameras, MP3 players and computers.