The marriage of optical and silicon moves one step closer

Tech Culture

You don't hear the words silicon photonics dropped in casual conversation every day, but the concept is increasingly important to computer designers. Caltech start-up Luxtera, along with Intel and others are trying to produce components for optical communications--wave guides, modulators, etc.--out of silicon.

Historically, optical components are expensive to make. Optical--which transmits data by photons--is far superior in terms of performance to communicating through electrical signals sent over copper wire. Heat and power consumption also copper is one day doomed, said Cary Gunn, Co-Founder, Vice President of Technology

"100 gigabit copper is completely impossible," he said.

Silicon photonics hopes to marry the best of both worlds.

Last year, Luxtera showed off a silicon modulator, which chops up a stream of laser light which gets interpreted as data. This year, the company has come out with a silicon ring modulator. Although ring modulators don't provide the same level of performance as Luxtera's first modulator, it's 1000 times smaller.

The modulator takes up only 30 square microns. The ring modulator is also still superior to the copper alternatives.

"We can fit an entire NIC (network interface card) onto a chip," Gunn said. Ultimately, all this will be integrated into a corner of a chip.

The company hopes to have samples of its first silicon modulator by the second quarter of 2006 and move into commercial production by late 2006 or early 2007. It did not provide a calendar for the ring oscillator.

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