On Tuesday, Intel demonstrated the world’s first practical data connection using silicon photonics - a 50 gigabit per second optical data connection built around an electrically pumped hybrid silicon laser. They achieved the 50 gigabit/s data rate by multiplexing 4 12.5 gigabit/s wavelengths into one fiber - wavelength division multiplexing. Intel dubbed its demo the “50G Silicon Photonics Link.” 

Fiber optic data transmission isn’t anything new - it’s the core of what makes the internet as we know it today possible. What makes Intel’s demonstration unique is that they’ve fabricated the laser primarily out of a low-cost, mass-produceable, highly understood material - silicon. 

For years, chip designers and optical scientists alike have dreamt about the possibilities of merging traditional microelectronics and photonics. Superficially, one would expect it to be easy - after all, both fundamentally deal with electromagnetic waves, just at different frequencies (MHz and GHz for microelectronics, THz for optics). 

On one side, microelectronics deals with integrated circuits and components such as transistors, copper wires, and the massively understood and employed CMOS manufacturing process. It’s the backbone of microprocessors, and at the core of conventional computing today. Conversely, photonics employs - true to its name - photons, the basic unit of light. Silicon photonics is the use of optical systems that use silicon as the primary optical medium, instead of other more expensive optical materials. Eventually, photonics has the potential to supplant microelectronics with optical analogues of traditional electrical components - but that’s decades away.

Until recently, successfully integrating the two was a complex balance of manufacturing and leveraging photonics only when it was feasible. Material constraints have made photonics effective primarily as a long haul means of getting data from point to point. To a larger extent, this has made sense because copper traces on motherboards have been fast enough, but we’re getting closer and closer to the limit. 

Why use photonics?
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  • GullLars - Wednesday, August 4, 2010 - link

    Go liquid cooling, and you can get 500-2000W worth of power as densely packed as an ITX card. By using optical connections to build in 3D, you can have multiple planes of components.
  • nafhan - Friday, July 30, 2010 - link

    Another problem with motherboard design that this will help with is RF interferance.
  • nafhan - Friday, July 30, 2010 - link

    For anyone with a radio background, if the term WDM seems odd it's the term used by fiber optic people for FDM.
    Also, like to emphasize how big of an advantage that photonics/fiber optics have over normal electrical signals in motherboard design or any other application with a high frequency electrical signal. Replacing electrical signals with something that has essentially no radiated signal is huge. No interference is a very good thing.
    This stuff is just cool...
  • spunlex - Friday, July 30, 2010 - link

    <quote> it emits primarily phonons (lattice vibrations - and through a ton of hand waving and thermodynamic processes, heat), and very few electrons. </quote>

    I think this should read "and very few <b>photons</b>."

    Great article, it's good to see manufacturing of cheap quality lazers really took of in the past couple year. I am looking forward to many more interesting articles on photonics.
  • spunlex - Friday, July 30, 2010 - link

    I totally forgot these comments don't support formating, still pining for the edit feature.
  • Brian Klug - Friday, July 30, 2010 - link

    Oh wow good catch! That's what I get for writing this so late at night!

  • spunlex - Friday, July 30, 2010 - link

    I know what you mean, no where near as bad as some of the late night lab reports I have handed in.
  • iwodo - Friday, July 30, 2010 - link

    It mean we finally have VERY Good On broad Audio Chipset,
  • GDILord - Monday, August 2, 2010 - link

    Well, what exactly do broads have right now? :-)
  • cesthree - Saturday, July 31, 2010 - link

    When can we get this for an external GPU case?

    Have a case that only houses GPU's with their own PSU's and cooling solutions.

    Connect that case with your case via a Photon Link. I can't begin to list the advantages of a setup like this.

    I'm sure there is disadvantages. I know I would buy/make one if I could.

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