5 tech breakthroughs: Chip-level advances that may change computing

Laser-connected chips, flexible printed circuits, memristors and more are on the horizon.

Imagine a world with electronic devices that can power themselves, music players that hold a lifetime of songs, self-healing batteries, and chips that can change abilities on the fly. Based on what's going on in America's research laboratories, these things are not only possible, but likely.

David Seiler, NIST
NIST's David Seiler: What is "far-out fantasy" today will soon become commonplace.

"The next five years will be a very exciting time for electronics," says David Seiler, chief of the semiconductor electronics division at the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md. "There will be lots of things that today seem like far-out fantasy but will start to be commonplace."

In this two-part series, we'll take you on a tour of what could be the future of electronics. Some of these ideas may sound fantastic, others simply a long-overdue dose of common sense, but the common thread is that they have all been demonstrated in the lab and have the potential to become commercially available products in the next five years or so.

Today's story focuses on chip-level advances, from processors that transmit data via lasers instead of wires to circuits made with new materials that leave conventional silicon ones in the dust. These technologies could be the building blocks for a plethora of new and innovative products, some of which we can't even conceive of today.

And don't miss part 2 of the series, covering five innovations in access, power and control.

Chips without wires: The laser connection

An up-close look at any microprocessor reveals millions of tiny wires going every which way to connect its active elements. Go below the surface, and there can be more than five times as many wires. Jurgen Michel, a researcher at MIT's Microphotonics Center in Cambridge, Mass., wants to replace all those wires with flashing germanium (Ge) lasers that transmit data via infrared light.

"As processors get more cores and components," explains Michel, "the interconnecting wires become clogged with data and are the weak link. We're using photons, rather than electrons, to do it better."

[ Related reading: Shining a light on the chip interconnect bottleneck ]

Capable of moving data at, well, the speed of light, a Ge laser can transmit bits and bytes 100 times faster than electricity moving through wires can, which means the critical connections between the chip's processing cores and its memory, for example, won't hold the rest of the device back. Just as fiber-optic communications made phone calls more efficient a generation ago, using lasers inside chips could put computing into overdrive.

These circuits communicate using a germanium laser
These circuits communicate using a germanium laser. Photo: Dominick Reuter/MIT.

The best part is that MIT's system doesn't require tiny fiber cables buried inside each processor. Instead, the chip is crisscrossed with a series of subterranean tunnels and caverns to transmit the pulses of light; tiny mirrors and sensors relay and interpret the data.

This mixing of traditional silicon electronics with optical components -- a practice known as silicon photonics -- can make computers greener as well. That's because lasers use less power than the wires they replace and give off less heat that needs to be cooled.

"Optoelectronics is a holy grail," says Seiler. "It can broaden electronics and is a great way to cut power use because you don't have all those wires acting like space heaters."

In February 2010, Michel and his collaborators, Lionel Kimerling and Jifeng Liu, successfully created and tested a functioning circuit that incorporates Ge laser data transfers. The chip hit speeds of over a terabit per second, or two orders of magnitude faster than today's best chips with wired connectors can do.

Lionel Kimerling, Jurgen Michel and Jifeng Liu
The Ge laser crew (from left to right): MIT professors Lionel Kimerling and Jurgen Michel with researcher Jifeng Liu, now an assistant professor of engineering at Dartmouth College. Photo: Dominick Reuter/MIT.

The chip is manufactured using current semiconductor processing techniques with some small additions, so Michel thinks that the transition to laser-based connections can happen over the next five years. If further tests are successful, MIT says it will license the process; this type of chip could become available around 2015.

The need has never been greater. By 2015, it's likely that there will be computer chips with up to 64 independent processing cores, each working simultaneously. "Connecting them with wires is a dead end," Michel says. "Using a germanium laser to connect them has huge potential and a big payoff."

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