February 16, 2005 10:00 AM PST

Intel unveils silicon laser

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Intel has devised a laser out of silicon, the latest in a series of steps that could take the expense and pain out of optical communication.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has created a chip containing eight continuous Raman lasers by using fairly standard silicon processes rather than the somewhat expensive materials and processes required for making lasers today. The lasers emit a continuous stream of light that can then be modulated, or chopped up, into a stream of impulses that can represent data. Cheap optical parts could not only lead to faster computers but also to less expensive and more accurate medical equipment.

While silicon lasers likely won't enter the market for at least four to five years, the chip should generate enthusiasm and interest in the industry. Although manufacturers love silicon, it's typically a terrible carrier for optical data.

"This is a scientific breakthrough, and a psychological breakthrough, because no one thought you could do it," said Mario Paniccia, director of the photonics technology lab at Intel. "Silicon is not a good optical material" in ordinary circumstances, he added.

The laser represents the latest step in Intel's plans to adopt optical links to connect computers, chips or eventually even subcomponents on the same chip. Last year, the company showed off a silicon modulator that is on its way to running as fast as the exotic modulators of today.

"What Intel is talking about is taking a $2,000 modulator and putting it on a piece of silicon and taking all of the parts you need and putting it into a single package," said Martin Reynolds, an analyst at Gartner. "Clearly, there is a market for it."

It is also part of a larger effort at Intel to employ its factories to make silicon chips that can test blood or perform mechanical tasks rather than just calculate ones and zeros.

Carrying data on light comes with tremendous advantages. Power consumption and heat dissipation have become a huge problem for chip designers. Photons, units of light carried on optical fiber, generate far less heat than electrons, the signal carriers on copper wire. Fiber strands can also handle far more data traffic, thereby cutting down on cabling and the internal volume of computers.

The catch? Optical components are expensive to manufacture and require exotic III-V materials. Assembling the components into complete systems also remains an arduous task.

That Raman lasers could reduce the hassle and expense is a "significant breakthrough," said Jalali Bahram, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. Bahram invented the first silicon Raman laser. (Intel's is the first with a continuous beam.)

Current optical equipment requires that the optical fiber serving as the light source be carefully aligned

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what a misrepresentation
This is completely useless achievement for silicon photonics but it is presented as the best thing after the sliced bread. If you need an external laser to pump this so-called "silicon laser", what if the point? Why not use the externally provided laser light you launched into the chip anyway? This gudget simply takes one laser signal and converts it into another laser signal. ergo it is not a real self-contained laser source, as the headline would imply. The true achievement would be to produce electrically pumped laser, but nobody managed to do it so far in silicon. Just another hype
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Jim, unfortunately you are correct
There is no mention of the pump laser and the Raman efficiency, but the references to the nature article is even worse as they call it an all silicon laser.

On the other hand there is much pressure in the telcom industry still, such that good work needs to be pumped with orders of magnitude more energy than what the real output of the work is.
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