Light-emitting silicon, breakthrough after 50 years of work

Emitting light from silicon has been the ‘Holy Grail’ in the microelectronics industry for decades. Solving this puzzle would revolutionize computing, as chips will become faster than ever. Researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology now succeeded: they have developed an alloy with silicon that can emit light. The results have been published in the journal Nature. The team will now start creating a silicon laser to be integrated into current chips.

Every year we use and produce significantly more data. But our current technology, based on electronic chips, is reaching its ceiling. The limiting factor is heat, resulting from the resistance that the electrons experience when traveling through the copper lines connecting the many transistors on a chip. If we want to continue transferring more and more data every year, we need a new technique that does not produce heat. Bring in photonics, which uses photons (light particles) to transfer data.

In contrast to electrons, photons do not experience resistance. As they have no mass or charge, they will scatter less within the material they travel through, and therefore no heat is produced. The energy consumption will therefore be reduced. Moreover, by replacing electrical communication within a chip by optical communication, the speed of on-chip and chip-to-chip communication can be increased by a factor 1000. Data centers would benefit most, with faster data transfer and less energy usage for their cooling system. But these photonic chips will also bring new applications within reach. Think of laser-based radar for self-driving cars and chemical sensors for medical diagnosis or for measuring air and food quality.

This research project on light emitting silicon has been funded by the EU project SiLAS, coordinated by TU/e professor Jos Haverkort.

Read the complete press release at the Eindhoven University of Technology website.

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