Optical Reality

New chips promise cheap Web bandwidth.

An all-optical Internet–fast, ultracheap, free of bulky electronics–may still be years away, but big advances in integrated optical chips are nearing market to help fuel the Internet’s growth. This image shows one-centimeter-square chips built at Infinera in Sunnyvale, CA. Each chip contains more than 40 optical devices that are important to managing the transmission of data on light beams; due to be commercialized this summer, they can replace individual components within Internet hubs. And this fall ­Luxtera, of Carlsbad, CA, is commercializing a chip that integrates 100 optical components on silicon. Affixed to fiber-optic cables, the chips can provide superfast connections between servers in data centers. “The vision is a path of integration in a similar way that electronics was integrated–from a few, to 40, to someday hundreds of optical devices on the same chips,” says Marin ­Soljačić, a physicist and photonics researcher at MIT. Within five years, optical integration is likely to have a “substantial impact” on telecom networks and data centers, he says. “After that, it might start pene­trating your laptop or desktop.”

Light lanes: These three chips each hold more than 40 optical components etched on a specially treated glass substrate.

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From the latest smartphones to advances in quantum computing, the hardware behind today's digital age is rapidly changing.

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