Cambridge-based firm wins DARPA optical chip project

April 28, 2016 | 13:25

Tags: #co-processor #optical-computing

Companies: #darpa #optalysys

A Cambridge-based optical computing pioneer, Optalysys, has received funding for a joint project with the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop an optical co-processor to boost the performance of supercomputers.

As the laws of physics make themselves increasingly apparent and Moore's Law looks in danger of failing, companies are investigating possible replacements for traditional silicon semiconductors. Some are working on replacing the silicon part with different materials, while others are looking to replace the very concept of using electricity within the chip by switching to light. In 2013, MIT researches unveiled an optical transistor which could prove the basis for future light-based processors, but it's a UK company looking to bring the concept to market: Optalysys, now boasting a partnership with the US DARPA.

'We are reaching the limits of what traditional silicon-based processors can deliver. Moore’s Law is breaking down and traditional computing methods are approaching their limits in terms of cost and capability,' claimed Nick New, chief executive and founder of Optalysys. 'The Optalysys technology is built on the well established principals of Fourier and diffractive optics, but we use them in combination with advanced high resolution microdisplays. We are creating a cost-effective solution that can be scaled beyond the levels of traditional electrical computers and can be integrated with existing desktop and HPC architectures. We are developing the technology specifically to help speed up research and analysis for organisations that are trying to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems so having the chance to work with DARPA in this way is an exciting step forward for us.'

The deal sees DARPA providing a $350,000 grant to Optalysys for a 13-month project in developing an optical co-processor which can be used to accelerate the performance of existing electrical computers for complex tasks such as the simulations required to predict the weather - or, given DARPA's involvement, to calculate the destructive power of a new weapon. The company's development is currently at Technology Readiness Level 5 - the official ranking given to technology proven in breadboarded or other prototypical fashion in-the-field - following a UK government funded partnership with The Genome Analysis Centre in Norwich, with the DARPA funding to bring it up a few steps on the ladder towards commercialisation.
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