October 28, 2002 4:54 PM PST

ST Micro sees silicon light

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ST Microelectronics announced Monday that it has discovered a way to efficiently insert optical components onto silicon chips, a breakthrough that opens the door to cheaper, more power-efficient semiconductors.

Though other companies have been working in the same area, ST Microelectronics claims that its advance, which involves implanting rare-earth metals such as erbium and cerium into the chip, is the first to produce a focused beam of light that can be channeled to create effective signals.

Optical components exchange signals via photons of light. Silicon chips typically contain wires that exchange signals through electrons. By combining optical and electrical functions onto the same chip, the European semiconductor giant could not only create more efficient chips, it could reduce the number of chips inside of communications equipment or set-top boxes, which currently contain both optical and silicon processors.

"The quantum efficiencies achieved are about 100 times better than has previously been possible with silicon," project director Salvo Coffa said in a statement.

Merging optical technology with efficient silicon manufacturing techniques would solve pending problems facing both fields. Manufacturing optical equipment remains something of an art and requires chips made of materials that are more expensive than those used to make silicon chips. At the same time, while silicon chips are far less expensive to mass manufacture, the number of transistors on today's chips is generating massive amounts of heat, which can interfere with signals and force designers to incorporate all sorts of insulators. Photons generate less heat than electrons.

Given the potential benefits, many companies have been searching for a winning combination. ST Microelectronics rivals have been working on similar projects for melding the optical and silicon worlds.

British researchers a few years ago managed to produce silicon chips that could create light, but it was an unfocused glow, said Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report, an industry newsletter.

ST Microelectronics said its breakthrough not only allows the channeling of light, but also allows that light to be produced with less energy.

Quantum efficiencies refer to the number of electrons it takes to make a photon.

The company will provide engineering samples by the end of the year, said an ST Microelectronics representative.


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