Scientists at Oxford University have achieved a breakthrough in innovative chip design with a new invention, a light-based silicon photonic chip which is reportedly 300 times faster than a traditional electronic semiconductor.
The photonic chip demonstrates photonic technology capacity to enhance performance and energy efficiency in data centres, especially as traditional semiconductor chips have begun to reach their limits in innovative potential.
Unlike electronic circuitry and transistors fitted within semiconductors to carry information, photonic chips use light, instead of electricity, to transfer information.
June Sang Lee, a PhD student from the department of materials at the University of Oxford, who was listed as the first author of the paper, explained that “we all know that the advantage of photonics over electronics is that light is faster and more functional over large bandwidths.”
“So, our aim was to fully harness such advantages of photonics combining with tunable material to realise faster and denser information processing.”
Although the photonic chip recently developed by the Oxford team is still in the early stages of work, businesses are increasingly searching for ways to incorporate photonic semiconductors into their products, as a means to process large and complex artificial intelligence (AI) workloads.
Surpassing Limits of Traditional Semiconductor Chips
Though traditional semiconductor chips have been around for a long time, the number of transistors that manufacturers can fit on a single silicon chip has started to hit its maximum limit.
This stagnation means that the innovative potential of existing, traditional semiconductors, will become increasingly limited, even though consumers are going to demand higher artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning workloads as their data storage and cloud use increases.
Anushree Verma, director analyst at Gartner notes that the market for silicon photonics were worth $516 million in 2020, and is expected to grow to $2.6 billion by 2025. She explained that companies’ increased interest in silicon photonics may be attributed to these firms’ “increased interest in artificial intelligence and machine learning workloads, which need faster networking…” which also requires “faster interconnections and higher and higher bandwidth.”
Vaysh Kewada, CEO of Salience Labs, a British start-up developing photonic silicon chips, noted that companies could stand to benefit greatly from vastly improved processing speeds that photonic chips can provide, which enhance AI performance.
However, although photonic chips may be a breakthrough innovation which could revolutionise data centre operations, there still remain significant hurdles to their widespread adoption across the industry. The price of silicon chips remains high, and it is still difficult to integrate photonic chips within existing systems without creating tech disruptions.
For now, photonic chips are still a nascent technology which are still not yet able to replace traditional semiconductor chips. However, widespread interest in photonic chips, within the data centre industry and beyond, will continue to drive innovations in the field that may one day enable photonic chips and technology to have a greater stake in the data centre industry.
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