Single-chip microprocessor that communicates directly using light

Nature. 2015 Dec 24;528(7583):534-8. doi: 10.1038/nature16454.


Data transport across short electrical wires is limited by both bandwidth and power density, which creates a performance bottleneck for semiconductor microchips in modern computer systems--from mobile phones to large-scale data centres. These limitations can be overcome by using optical communications based on chip-scale electronic-photonic systems enabled by silicon-based nanophotonic devices. However, combining electronics and photonics on the same chip has proved challenging, owing to microchip manufacturing conflicts between electronics and photonics. Consequently, current electronic-photonic chips are limited to niche manufacturing processes and include only a few optical devices alongside simple circuits. Here we report an electronic-photonic system on a single chip integrating over 70 million transistors and 850 photonic components that work together to provide logic, memory, and interconnect functions. This system is a realization of a microprocessor that uses on-chip photonic devices to directly communicate with other chips using light. To integrate electronics and photonics at the scale of a microprocessor chip, we adopt a 'zero-change' approach to the integration of photonics. Instead of developing a custom process to enable the fabrication of photonics, which would complicate or eliminate the possibility of integration with state-of-the-art transistors at large scale and at high yield, we design optical devices using a standard microelectronics foundry process that is used for modern microprocessors. This demonstration could represent the beginning of an era of chip-scale electronic-photonic systems with the potential to transform computing system architectures, enabling more powerful computers, from network infrastructure to data centres and supercomputers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.