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Optoelectronic Microprocessor Made From Current Fabrication Methods


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When we think about how fast the various components in our computers perform, we likely forget about important distance matters. The greater the distance between two components, the less data can be efficiently transported without bumping up the power to possibly unsustainable levels. One way around this would be to use light to transmit data between components, and now researchers at MIT, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Colorado have successfully built a working optoelectronic microprocessor.

Successfully designing an optoelectronic microprocessor is far from easy because the materials involved can have conflicting properties. For example, the free electrons in conductors tend to absorb light, which interferes with optical transmissions, so the researchers had to figure out a way to use the positive charge carriers left behind to protect the transmissions. To convert the optical signals into electricity the researchers patterned metal onto the optical ring resonators within the chip. On its own the metal will not interfere, but when a voltage is applied it can alter the optical properties of the resonator or register changes in the optical signal. It turns out the energy cost of these detectors can be as low as a picojoule, which is a tenth of what traditional computer chips require.

Built on a 45 nm process at GlobalFoundries and with 850 optical components and 70 million transistors, this microprocessor is not about to outperform modern processors, but it does not have to. It has proven that it is possible to build optoelectronic microprocessors with standard semiconductor fabrication methods. There is still plenty of work to do, but this is a significant step towards bringing optics into computer components, and the benefits that come with them.

Source: MIT

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