Breakthrough Shines a Light on Supercomputers

IBM researchers report a significant advance in the quest to send information between multiple cores - “brains” - on a chip using pulses of light through silicon, instead of electrical signals on wires.

The breakthrough, known in the industry as a silicon Mach-Zehnder electro-optic modulator, converts electrical signals into pulses of light. The IBM device is 100 to 1,000 times smaller than similar modulators.

That reduction paves the way to integrating entire optical routing networks on a single chip. The result could be supercomputers that would fit into a laptop PC. In addition, the advance could significantly reduce cost, energy and heat. While today’s supercomputers often use the equivalent energy required to power hundreds of homes, these future tiny supercomputers-on-a-chip would expend the energy of a light bulb.

“Work is underway within IBM and in the industry to pack many more computing cores on a single chip, but today’s on-chip communications technology would overheat and be far too slow to handle that increase in workload,” said Dr. T.C. Chen, vice president, Science and Technology, IBM Research. “What we have done is a significant step toward building a vastly smaller and more power-efficient way to connect those cores, in a way that nobody has done before.”

“We believe this is a major advancement in the field of on-chip silicon nanophotonics,” said Dr. Will Green, the lead IBM scientist on the project. “Just like fiber 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.”

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