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Chip-to-chip communications
Company: Sun Microsystems
Status: Could be used in computers in five years

Silicon transistors have become so small that the limit on faster computing is no longer the number of devices that can be crammed onto a chip. Rather, it’s how quickly information can move between chips. Sun Microsystems’ answer to this problem: instead of connecting the chips with tiny wires, let them communicate merely by being near each other.

It’s called capacitive coupling, and it works like this: Movement of a charge through a transistor on one chip creates a disturbance in the surrounding electric field. This changing field, in turn, induces an identical charge to flow through the matching transistor on the facing chip-creating what amounts to a wireless communications link over the distance of a couple of micrometers. The result is chip-to-chip communication that’s up to 60 times faster than the speediest existing system’s.

“Proximity communication is essential for the growth of computing,” says Robert Drost, a Sun senior staff engineer leading the project. Supercomputers, scientific computing, Web servers, and database servers will soon demand a faster form of chip-to-chip communication, he says. Sun is developing the technology as part of an effort by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build a next-generation supercomputer in the next six years. But Drost expects the technology to begin delivering faster computing in high-end commercial systems, such as those used in scientific computers or as database servers, even sooner.

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