Researchers Made Silicon Glow and It Could Make Computers a Lot Faster

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A 45nm process 300mm silicon wafer from 2007.
A 45nm process 300mm silicon wafer from 2007.
Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP (Getty Image)

After 50 years of continual invention and innovation into making computer chips faster, Moore’s Law isn’t as dead as it seemed. Researchers have figured out a way to make silicon glow, according to a new report from Wired. That means instead of doubling the amount of transistors in computer chips every two years, it now seems possible that we can use photons, or microscopic particles that emit light, to transmit data.

It’s a huge milestone as far as computer chips are concerned. Sure, companies like AMD and Intel have been packing more cores and threads into processors, even shrinking the gap between transistors to as small as 7nm. But there’s a few caveats that come with packing more transistors tightly together, like overheating and electron “traffic jams,” which means the flow of communication will become very slow, or grind to halt all together. It’s an issue that could partially explain why Intel has been working on its 10nm tech for longer than expected; the manufacturing process would need to be just right to prevent those issues with tightly packed transistors, something that AMD apparently figured out instead, but I digress.

To keep Moore’s Law alive, we have to move away from this electron-transistor model to photons via optical (light) connections, which has been a problem for a while since silicon doesn’t really like to emit light. At all. Silicon is a semiconductor, a material that transmits electricity only under specific conditions, and its atoms are arranged in a specific shape that allows electrons to move around freely, but not photons. That’s why computer chips are electron-transistor based and why we’re trying to pack them in as tightly as possible without compromising data flow.


But according to Wired, a team of European researchers were able to make silicon glow by growing “silicon alloy nanowires that can emit light.” It’s all laid out in this paper that was published a few days ago, but research team lead Erik Bakkers, a physicist at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, says his lab is using this growing technique to build a “tiny silicon laser that can be built into computer chips,” which could result in computer chips that conduct less heat, consume less energy, and transfer data faster. Basically, Bakkers and his team spent the last ten years figuring out a way to change the structural shape of silicon so that its photons can move around more freely, and finally succeeded. Photon-based transistors will help move data from more quickly and across multiple channels at once. Electrons, however, transmit data across one channel at a time.

Still, future computer chips might not be entirely optical. Within a component itself, it makes more sense to use electrons to transmit data since the data only needs to move a short distance. But for longer distances, like between two computer hardware components, Bakkers says photons would be more effective. And it’s not just home computers that would benefit from this new technology. Data centers, self-driving cars—anything that could or would benefit from “speed of light” processing.