SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Developing a new use for the material that's already the foundation of the computer chip industry, Intel Corp. researchers have built a continuously shining silicon laser that could drive down the cost of optical networking.
The technology's implications could be enormous, researchers said. Such a laser could make high-bandwidth, light-based communication feasible for not only the links between computers but also those between components inside PCs. It also could slash the cost of lasers used in defense, medicine, and other industries.
Just a few years ago, few experts thought silicon could be used to build a laser, said Mario Paniccia, director of Intel's photonics lab.
It tends to absorb light energy, dissipating it as heat rather than amplifying it like lasers built with more exotic materials.
"This is a fundamental breakthrough," said Paniccia, a coauthor of the Intel study, which was to be published in the journal Nature today. "It's one of those things that's a game changer. You're doing something in silicon that couldn't be done before."
If the research continues on track, the devices could be made in the same plants now used to build microprocessor and memory chips, thereby helping companies like Intel further leverage their multibillion-dollar manufacturing investments.
Laser beams are usually created by using a blast of electricity or light to boost the energy levels of electrons in atoms of polished crystal rods, semiconductors, gases, or vapors. Then the electrons fall back, and photons, the basic element of light, are released and eventually beamed out as concentrated light.
The basic process doesn't work with silicon because of its physical qualities. Instead, researchers focused on a weak but precise scattering of photons called the Raman effect. And it turns out silicon is a good material for Raman lasers.