Silicon Nanophotonics

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Optical waveguides (blue) transmitting optical signals incorporated with electrical wires (orange) transmitting electrical signals on a single chip manufactured through the 90nm CMOS fabrication process.

IBM has begun commercial manufacturing of their new silicon nanophotonic chips to push data over distance much faster than before, alleviating bandwidth limitations on servers, data centers, and supercomputers[fn]http://researcher.ibm.com/researcher/view_project.php?id=2757[/fn].  The chips can be manufactured using industry standardized 90nm CMOS fabrication techniques, keeping costs of this new technology down while leveraging a decade worth of research to deliver significant advances in exascale—large, data center or server farm—computing applications.  These new 90 nm transceivers transfer data at rates of 25 GB per second, utilizing technology that is in the newest petachips for supercomputers. 

According to IBM Researchers, germanium photodectors, modulators, and wavelength division multiplexers (WDMs) can be cheaply integrated with analog and mixed signal (AMS) circuits fabricated on high resistivity SOI substrates via already scaled processes.  These chips will change the physical architecture of exascale applications allowing for data transfer rates in the terabyte range on a single chip.

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This technology creates photonic chips that transfer data through pulses of light. These chips are more efficient, faster, and can transfer more data than previous devices for exascale applications; reducing bandwidth bottlenecks at server farms and data centers.

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Novel nanophotonic technology has significant potential to increase the power efficiency and data transfer rates in large super computer, server, and data center applications while still remaining cost effective.

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The potential risks for this technology are the same for those associated with the 90 nm CMOS fabrication process; an industry standardized process since 2005. This is not to say that the process is inherently safe. Human health risks are present when dealing with the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals used in semiconductor manufacturing. Additionally, there are a number of court cases and regulatory citations involving the cancer cases and safety procedures at large semiconductor manufacturers.
Environmentally, semiconductor fabrication poses a number of risks. The manufacture of semiconductors is energy intensive, so there are ambiguous risks to the environment dependent on the energy source used in the manufacturing process. There are a number of superfund clean-up sites across the nation that are the result of highly toxic solvents leaking from storage tanks and contaminating the soil and groundwater. Additionally, the ultimate fate of the electronic devices and their chipsets poses environmental and human health risks to the public. While this technology will ultimately reduce resource consumption and increase energy efficiency, they do not directly address the risks associated with semiconductor manufacturing.

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