MIT student integrate fiber optics for more energy efficient chips

An MIT student team has developed a way to integrate fiber optics — glass or plastic components that can transmit data using light waves — into computer chips, replacing copper wires that rely on electricity.

Using light instead of electricity can drop energy usage by about 95 percent in chip-to-chip communications and increase bandwidth tenfold, team member Alex Wright, a graduate student in the MIT Sloan School of Management, said. Incorporating the technology into massive data centers, run by tech giants like Facebook, she added, could help cut energy usage in these centers by up to 10 percent. “We’re replacing electricity with light and, with it, we’re ushering in a new era of energy efficiency,” Wright said.

For years, Optibit’s two other team members — Chen Sun, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and Mark Wade, a PhD student at the University of Colorado — “hacked” traditional software used to design silicon chips.

They built their own software layers that enabled them to design chips that include fiber optics more tightly configured than ever inside a chip’s structure. Those designs are then easily and cost-effectively made by commercial chip manufacturers.

While Optibit’s focus is currently on designing chips and licensing the technology to data centers, Wright said the goal is to bring optical chips to every electronic device, from cellphones to electric cars. “The technology has a huge potential for impact,” she said.