Intel has promised computing at the speed of light after using standard silicon manufacturing processes to create the world's first continuous wave silicon laser.
According to the chip giant, the technology could bring relatively inexpensive, high-quality lasers and optical devices to mainstream use in computing, communications and medical applications.
The breakthrough centres on using the so-called Raman effect and silicon's crystalline structure to amplify light as it passes through the material. When infused with light from an external source the chip produces a continuous, high-quality laser beam.
While Intel acknowledged that the process is "still far from becoming a commercial product", it promised that building lasers from standard silicon could lead to inexpensive optical devices that move data inside and between computers at the speed of light, ushering in a flood of new applications for high-speed computing.
"Fundamentally, we have demonstrated for the first time that standard silicon can be used to build devices that amplify light," said Dr Mario Paniccia, director of Intel's Photonics Technology Lab.
"The use of high-quality photonic devices has been limited because they are expensive to manufacture, assemble and package. This research is a major step towards bringing the benefits of low-cost, high-bandwidth, silicon-based optical devices to the mass market."
Intel explained that every computer already has a power supply to drive the chips, hard disc and peripherals, but predicted that PCs will have a supply for powering tiny lasers, amplifiers and optical interconnects that move terabytes of data around the computer and across networks.
Building a Raman laser in silicon begins with etching a waveguide, a conduit for light on a chip. Silicon is transparent to infrared light so that when light is directed into a waveguide it can be contained and channelled across a chip.
Like the first laser developed in 1960, Intel researchers used an external light source to 'pump' light into its chip.
As light is pumped in, the natural atomic vibrations in silicon amplify the light as it passes through the chip. This amplification, known as the Raman effect, is more than 10,000 times stronger in silicon than in glass fibres.
Raman lasers and amplifiers are used today in the telecoms industry and rely on miles of fibre to amplify light. By using silicon, Intel said it could achieve similar results using a silicon chip just a few centimetres in size.
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