There’s a reason that the Internet backbone is made of fiber-optic cables: photons transport bits of information faster than electrons. But while photons and fiber are the most efficient way of sending data across continents, it’s still cheaper and easier to use electrons in copper wiring for most data transfer over shorter distances.
Now Intel plans to sell inexpensive cables with fiber-optic-caliber speed to connect, for instance, a laptop and an external hard drive, or a phone and a desktop computer. At the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Francisco Wednesday, the company announced a new type of optical cable that it hopes will be fast, cheap, and thin enough to make it an attractive replacement for multiple copper wires.
By 2010, says Dadi Perlmutter, vice president of Intel’s mobility group, the company hopes to ship an optical cable called Light Peak that will be able to zip 10 gigabits of data per second from one gadget to another, a rate equivalent of transferring a Blu-ray movie from a computer to a mobile video player in 30 seconds. A single Light Peak cable will also be capable of transporting different types of data simultaneously, meaning it will be possible to back up a hard drive, transfer high-definition video, and connect to a network with just one line.
At both ends of a Light Peak cable are chips that contain devices that produce light, encode data in it, and send it on its way. The chips can also amplify incoming signals and convert the light to an electrical signal that can be interpreted by gadgets. The first generation of Light Peak will use chips made with standard optical materials such as gallium arsenide. However, to truly make optical cables cheap enough to replace copper, future versions of Light Peak, which will handle 40-gigabits-per-second and 100-gigabits-per-second transfer rates, will most likely need to rely on silicon-based optical chips, a product of the maturing field of silicon photonics. Silicon photonics researchers hope to transform computing by making high-bandwidth connectors cheaper than ever before, not just in cables, but also eventually within electronic motherboards and microprocessors.
“This will be a long-term transition,” says Perlmutter, referring to the fact that it takes years to develop and adopt standards for new connecting technologies. On stage during his IDF keynote, he held up in one hand a bundle of cables he currently lugs around with his laptop, and in the other, a thin, white Light Peak prototype cable. “I have a very light notebook,” he said, “but carry a huge amount of cables with me.”