In a development that could revolutionize how PCs and other tech gadgets communicate, Intel announced Tuesday that it had made the first chip that sends and receives information using beams of light.

The Santa Clara chipmaker said the fingernail-size research prototype already can move 100 hours of digital music or 45 million tweets in a second from one device to another. And the company expects to make one eventually that can transmit a laptop’s hard drive in one second and the entire printed collection of the Library of Congress in less than two minutes.

Moreover, because the chips are made of the same material the company uses for its brainy microprocessors, Intel envisions mass producing these “silicon photonic links” at low cost, making them practical for use in everything from personal computers to smartphones.

“The range of potential applications here rivals that which existed at the invention of the transistor,” Justin Rattner, Intel’s chief technology officer, said in a conference call with reporters. “It’s only limited by our imaginations.”

“It’s actually quite significant and a wonderful step forward,” added Alan Wilner, a laser expert at the University of Southern California who is familiar with the technology. While Intel previously had shown progress developing elements of a silicon-based system for transmitting information via light beams, with the chip the company just unveiled, “they’ve put everything together.”

The need for the photonic chip — which Intel said won’t be commercially available for at least five years and will work with, rather than replace, the other microchips it makes — has been fueled by the proliferation of electronic gadgets. That includes everything from PCs, printers and scanners to iPads, digital cameras and HDTVs.

Copper connections traditionally used in these gadgets can become overloaded with data, degrading their electronic signals. And because the amount of video and other information being transmitted is expanding rapidly, concerns are mounting that copper is nearing its technological limits.

But vast amounts of data can be transmitted easily via light beams over optical fiber, prompting a number of companies — including Hewlett-Packard and IBM — to begin investigating the technology seriously.

Intel already has a fiber-optic cable product, soon to be offered commercially, for linking home electronic gadgets. The company claims it can transmit data at 10 gigabits per second, about 20 times faster than possible with the USB cable connections common on PCs today.

But the chip it unveiled Tuesday, which sends data via four lasers, can hit 50 gigabits per second. And that’s just the beginning, according to Rattner. By adding a few more lasers, the company expects to be able to boost that to perhaps 1,000 gigabits, he said.

At that rate, the company said, it could transmit the Library of Congress data in one and a half minutes.

Responding to Intel’s announcement, R. Stanley Williams, who directs HP’s Information and Quantum Systems Lab, said, “we are excited about the potential this technology holds and are always interested when others in the industry make advancements.”

Although telecommunications systems already transmit data with light beams, the equipment used to send or receive that information can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars, Rattner said. By contrast, he said, Intel hopes to get the cost of its photonic chips down to $1 apiece.

That would essentially make the technology practical for a huge array of consumer products, similar to the way Ford’s early Model T factory transformed society by making automobiles affordable for the masses, said John Bowers, a laser expert at UC Santa Barbara who helped Intel develop the chip.

“It was a huge contribution that changed the world,” he said of Ford’s manufacturing technology. And when light beams become a common way of transmitting information, “I think that will happen here.”


By Steve Johnson

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