IBM says light will drive future PCs

December 11, 2007 // 9:34 a.m.

Tags: #circuits #cpus #emi #ibm #intel #laser #light #processors

In an article published in the trade journal Optics Express, IBM has announced that it is developing technology that may replace current electronic chips in future computers. Rather than using electrical connections, which are prone to overheating and EMI problems, the company is planning to produce processors that use light to carry out calculations.

Using micro-miniaturised Mach-Zehnder electro-optic modulators, IBM hopes to produce chips which are capable of running up to one hundred times faster than is currently possible with traditional CPUs, and some three times faster than the gains promised by recent research into 3D processors.

The best news is yet to come: the new chips will do all this and consume somewhere in the region of a tenth the power of current CPUs. Less power means less heat, which in turn means you can cram more horsepower into a smaller area without worrying about things melting down.

You'll have a bit of a wait on your hands for the new light-based superchip, however: the head honcho of the project, Will Green, is predicting commercial availability “in the timeframe of 10 to 15 years.” Initial batches of the chip have been earmarked by, surprise surprise, the high-tech branch of the Department of Defense - DARPA - who is partially funding the research project.

To allow Will to blow his own trumpet for a moment: “Just like fibre optic networks have enabled the rapid expansion of the Internet by enabling users to exchange huge amounts of data from anywhere in the world, IBM's technology is bringing similar capabilities to the computer chip.

While the research is clearly aimed at customers who need big-budget supercomputers, it'll be interesting to see how and when it trickles down to the retail level.

Which technology are you betting on – 3D processors or light-based computing? Let us know your thoughts in the forums.
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