WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As the world produces more information that ever before we need faster and faster systems to move it around and analyse it.
For years now researchers have been trying to create computers and computer chips that run at the speed of light but so far there’s been a fundamental problem – how to convert electric signals, electrons, into photonic ones, that use photons instead. Not only are the two completely different but they run at staggeringly different speeds. So far one solution has been to turn light into sound, literally, and create new revolutionary metamaterials, but now a team from ETH Zurich have found another solution which could, in time, help make photonic computers and even emerging photonic neural nets, a reality and help push home broadband speeds to beyond 100 Gbps.
The monolithic chip the team designed transmits data using light without losing signal quality, and they hope that for starters it will help companies increase the speed of data travelling through fiber optic networks – even though elsewhere another team just pushed that speed limit to a staggering 44.2 Terabits per second.
In a first, researchers were able to bring together electronic and light-based elements on the same chip, which is a technical breakthrough since, currently, these elements have to be manufactured on separate chips and connected with wires afterward.
Zurich is one such city that uses fiber-optic networks to deliver high-speed internet, TV, and other streaming services, but they fear that by the end of this decade these optical communication networks may reach their limits, and as Juerg Leuthold, ETH Professor of Photonics and Communications, said, “The rising demand will call for new solutions. The key to this paradigm shift lies in combining electronic and photonic elements on a single chip.” And that was what the researchers managed to achieve.
The scientists wrote, “Now electronic signals are converted into light signals using separate chips – this is how we lose a significant amount of signal quality. This is what limits the speed of data transmission with the help of light.”
“Therefore, we started with the development of a modulator – a component on a chip that generates light of a given intensity, converting electrical signals into light waves. The modulator size is very small in order to avoid loss of quality and intensity during the conversion process.”
The researchers were able to produce small monolithic circuits that have a photonic and an electronic layer, and in order to convert electrical signals to even faster optical ones, the photonic layer was made to contain a plasma intensity modulator that is based on metal structures that direct light to achieve high data rates.
The four input signals with lowers speeds are combined and amplified to form a high-speed electrical signal. Researchers were able to transfer data at a record-breaking speed of 100 gigabits per second using the novel chip in a first.
Leuthold stated that their preliminary tests indicate that these technologies can be connected to create the fastest compact chips.
“We’re convinced that this solution can also pave the way for faster data transmission in optical communication networks of the future,” they said.
The study was published in the journal Nature Electronics.