Researchers Announce Creation of Laser Chips

Researchers at Intel and the University of California at Santa Barbara say they have created a new kind of silicon-based chip that can produce flashes of laser light. Such optical chips could eventually lead to faster computers and telecommunications networks.

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Electrical engineers working with the computer chip giant Intel announced today that they have found a way to easily build tiny lasers on computer chips. The hope is that this could usher in a faster generation of devices, electronics built not just on electrons that move around, but also particles of light.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Under a microscope the chip looks like a small, shiny rectangle. At its edges, tiny invisible laser beams shoot out. John Bowers worked on the project with Intel. Bowers is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Professor JOHN BOWERS (University of California Santa Barbara): There's 26 lasers on there.

KESTENBAUM: And how big is the chip?

Professor BOWERS: It's small. You know, it's sort of the size of the end of your pen. A little less than a millimeter by about four millimeters.

KESTENBAUM: Bowers says the lasers will allow computer chips to communicate better with other devices, to send out more information in less time. Flicker the laser and you've sent a signal, a 1 or a 0.

Professor BOWERS: If you look at the progression of our computer chips that we all have in our laptops, they get faster every year. We require more and more computing capability out of them. The problem today is twofold. One is that that takes an awful lot of power and the chips get very hot. As you know, in your laptop, it gets very hot. And battery life is a big issue.

KESTENBAUM: That's in part because computer chips now send signals over wires. The wires get warm. Another drawback is that you can only send so much information over a wire. This is the same problem the Internet faces at large. You can only send so much information down a phone line or over a cable. The answer there has been to switch to optical fibers that carry pulses of light.

Professor BOWERS: So why haven't people used this for computers before? It's because the cost for each line is typically $1,000 or $100 apiece.

KESTENBAUM: Bowers says what he and his colleagues have done is find a reliable and probably affordable way to build lots of small lasers on computer chips. He imagines this will allow the computer's brain to talk to the memory chip faster or allow multiple brains to be wired together.

This probably won't pop up in laptops immediately, he says, but it could help companies that deal with lots of data.

Professor BOWERS: Right now the main impact is more for, you know, arrays of servers that companies use. You know, like Google or Yahoo!, that provide lots of, you know, capability to all of its users.

KESTENBAUM: Other electrical engineers contacted about the announcement had mixed responses. Keren Bergman, a professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, says she is impressed by the new work.

Professor KEREN BERGMAN (Columbia University): It's almost been, in some sense, a holy grail of silicon photonics, which emerged over the last small number of years - five, six years - as a major field to try and get, you know, a silicon-based optical source.

KESTENBAUM: Bergman says there is some debate about whether putting lasers on chips is the right way to go. Some people worry it could make the chip too hot, she says.

Nick Holonyak is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. He's famous for having built the first practical LED, those red lights you saw in early digital watches. He says what Intel is announcing is a nice advance, but he wouldn't call it revolutionary.

Professor NICK HOLONYAK (University of Illinois): It's a technological advance, and I fully agree with them that it'll take maybe to the end of the decade to know how to use it and make it and all that, but it may not be made. Because there may be better approaches. I think there are better ones, but longer range.

KESTENBAUM: Like his. Holonyak is working on turning the basic switch of a computer, a transistor, into a laser. Both Nick Holonyak and Keren Bergman do see a future where computer chips communicate quickly with light signals that don't need any wires. Bergman imagines the first applications for the home will be for that thing that really requires intensive computing power - videogames.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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