IBM has developed an optical chip — thats a microchip that uses light instead of wires to transmit data — capable of transmitting data at the nearly unfathomable speed of 1 terabit per second. That’s fast enough to allow someone to download 500 HD movies in one second, or the entire contents of the Library of Congress in an hour.
Put another way, it would take 100,000 users of today’s commonplace 10 megabit per second high-speed Internet connections to equal the bandwith in a single one of IBM’s 5.2 mm x 5.8 mm new optical chip.
Thus, the official name of the chip, “Holey Optochip,” seems immediately appropriate. But it’s actually a double entendre, as the the “Holey” moniker also refers to how IBM managed to achieve such a brain-melting speed: By puncturing 48 strategically-placed holes through a standard silicon CMOS chip, a standard type of semiconductor used in a variety of consumer electronics, including digital cameras.
As IBM explained in a press release announcing the breakthrough on March 8: “The Holey Optochip module is constructed with components that are commercially available today, providing the possibility to manufacture at economies of scale.”
Fully constructed, the chip itself costs between $100 and $200, according to Clint Schow, manager at IBM’s Optical Interconnects division and a lead developer of the Holey Optochip.
“Part of our internal requirements are that this chip be almost free to make,” Schow told TPM in a telephone interview. “Other requirements include that it be very small and very power efficient.”
And power efficient the Holey Optochip is: One chip requires less than five watts. 100 watts could power either 20 Optochips linked together or a 100w light bulb, take your pick.
Achieving the balance of blistering speed, compactness, cost, and power efficiency all in one chip was no easy feat, as Schow explained, particularly matching high-speed with low power consumption.
“Trying to do those two things simultaneously are what really set this apart,” Schow told TPM. “We can go faster and burn more power, or we can go slower and achieve even higher power efficiency.”
That’s not to say we’ll all be getting Holey Optochips in our own computers anytime soon. IBM’s research is designed primarily for the supercomputing systems market: giant, room-sized computational setups designed to model climate, intelligence and other enormous and multi-variable data sets.
But the chips could make their way into some big consumer brands.
“It historically hasn’t really been the case that more consumer-facing applications have needed these chips, you don’t need highly connected data centers in the Facebooks and Googles and Youtubes,” Schow told TPM. “But now they’re starting to ship a lot of data within the centers and are much more highly connected than in the past, and they might need new architectures and new bandwidth.”
IBM first began work on the invention that would become the Holey Optochip four and a half years ago. The team is rightfully proud of its milestone, debuting the chip at a conference in Los Angeles. But already, the team has begun thinking of how to double the speed and efficiency of the chip yet again.
“Our timeline is typically 5 to 10 years down the road,” Schow told TPM, “Over the next five years, we anticipate improving by factors of 2 or greater when it comes to bandwith and power, while keeping the costs down. It never ends. Even when you think you’ve reached a fundamental limit, we tend to break through those.”