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IBM’s electro-optic modulator could revolutionize supercomputers

Last week, IBM announced significant advances in technology that could be key to building supercomputers of the future. We are talking about an electro-optical modulator, a device that will replace wired connections between supercomputer components with optical. Figuratively speaking, the flows of electrons will give way to flows of photons, with the help of which the nuclei of future supercomputers will exchange information with each other. According to scientists, the use of light instead of electric current will radically reduce the size of systems and their energy consumption, while increasing the speed.

A mach-Zehnder silicon electro-optical modulator created in IBM laboratories converts electrical signals into light. It is 100-1000 times more compact than similar devices created earlier. This opens up the possibility of using the modulator in single-chip systems – as they say, in the official press release, an entire optical network can be integrated in one microcircuit. In turn, this will significantly reduce the cost, power consumption and heat dissipation, increasing the throughput of communication channels between cores, at least hundreds of times compared to solutions using wired connections.

The upper illustration shows the device structure. It is based on “silicon nanophotonic waveguides”, which are used to control the flux of photons in a silicon crystal. Waveguides of thin silicon strips (shown in purple), whose diameter is 200 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, are formed on an SOI (“silicon on insulator”) substrate. Electrical signals come to them via electrodes (yellow). Electric charges (“holes” – green, electrons – red) are injected into the waveguide, changing the optical properties of silicon and performing the modulation function.

The bottom illustration illustrates the modulator operation diagram. The input laser beam (shown in red) enters the modulator (box with the IBM logo). The modulator, working as a very fast shutter, allows the beam to be controlled using electrical signals. When an electrical pulse (bit “1”, marked in yellow) is applied to the modulator, the light pulse is allowed to pass through the modulator. When there is no electrical impulse (bit “0”), the modulator is closed and blocks the passage of the light flux. So, modulating the stream of photons, the device converts an electrical signal into a series of light pulses.

If all goes as scientists expect, the supercomputers of the future will resemble today’s laptops in size and power consumption.

Source: IBM

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