Light-Based Processors May End Up In Your Smartphone One Day


Modern day silicon processors can without doubt be considered one of the most monumental achievements of today. They’re everywhere; from the device you’re reading this on, to the microwave in your kitchen. But the ability to push their performance is proving to be increasingly difficult; bottle-necked by the nature of quantum mechanics. A feasible solution exists, however, and it may end up becoming the driving component of future gadgets.


To see how far we’ve come in terms of computing power, consider this: One of the fastest commercial silicon based CPUs of today (Intel Core i7 5960X) can produce 238,210 x 10^6 Instructions per second; 1.2 BILLION times the number of instructions than an Intel Pentium processor could produce in 1994. The transistors in these processors are made at 22nm, and as development continues, they will become even smaller. Recently Intel has announced a 10nm manufacturing process for its pure silicon CPUs. But they’ve acknowledged the limit as to how small that gap can be by stating that new materials will be required to downsize any further. As a matter of fact, when the spacing approaches 6nm, quantum tunneling becomes a very real problem and information traveling within the CPU will become corrupted at unacceptably high rates. Another problem for modern silicon processors is as more and more wires in a CPU become active, they begin to accumulate a tremendous amount of heat, reducing it’s capable throughput. This is what makes your computer fans spin up like crazy.


So the question arises: how does one circumvent these problems? Intel has already said that in order to move past this limitation, they will have to use new materials to transport information around, but what does that mean? Enter optical CPUs.

Work done in the domain of optics is usually related to imaging systems, lasers for high precision manufacturing, or fiber optical communication. But optics is beginning to see its way into processors. Professor Milos Popovic at the University of Colorado Boulder has manufactured one of the worlds first experimental optical CPUs, in collaboration with the University of California Berkeley, and MIT. Production was achieved using a commerbarrcial 45nm manufacturing process, and the processor architecture utilizes silicon transistors interfaced with optical wave guides used to transport information, which will allow information to travel at the speed of light (instead of sending information through a wire with some resistance) and reduce thermal emissions. A 3D rendering of a teapot was used to test the functionality of the CPU, and although it doesn’t seem like much of a benchmark for it’s performance, the fact that it is capable of carrying out such a task is quite a large step forward for this newly conceived technology. Replacing the majority of wires with optical wave guides seems to promise the elimination of the quantum tunneling problem that future CPUs will soon run into.


As long as development of this new processor continues, I believe it won’t be long until it sees commercial usage in everyday devices.