A pair of breakthroughs in the field of silicon photonics by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Micron Technology Inc. could allow for the trajectory of exponential improvement in microprocessors that began nearly half a century ago—known as Moore's Law—to continue well into the future, allowing for increasingly faster electronics, from supercomputers to laptops to smartphones.
The research team, led by CU-Boulder researcher Milos Popovic, an assistant professor of electrical, computer and energy engineering, developed a new technique that allows microprocessors to use light, instead of electrical wires, to communicate with transistors on a single chip, a system that could lead to extremely energy-efficient computing and a continued skyrocketing of computing speed into the future.
Popovic and his colleagues created two different optical modulators—structures that detect electrical signals and translate them into optical waves—that can be fabricated within the same processes already used in industry to create today's state-of-the-art electronic microprocessors. The modulators are described in a recent issue of the journal Optics Letters.
First laid out in 1965, Moore's Law predicted that the size of the transistors used in microprocessors could be shrunk by half about every two years for the same production cost, allowing twice as many transistors to be placed on the same-sized silicon chip. The net effect would be a doubling of computing speed every couple of years.
The projection has held true until relatively recently. While transistors continue to get smaller, halving their size today no longer leads to a doubling of computing speed. That's because the limiting factor in microelectronics is now the power that's needed to keep the microprocessors running. The vast amount of electricity required to flip on and off tiny, densely packed transistors causes excessive heat buildup.
"The transistors will keep shrinking and they'll be able to continue giving you more and more computing performance," Popovic said. "But in order to be able to actually take advantage of that you need to enable energy-efficient communication links."
Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald