Will your next laptop be a supercomputer?

IBM's Blue Gene supercomputers are some of the most powerful in the world

IBM has announced a scientific breakthrough that could see laptop-sized supercomputers within years, as well as thousand-core processors. What's more, the so-called supercomputers-on-a-chip could use the same energy as a light bulb. The process uses new light technology (silicon nanophotonics) that could eventually be used in domestic computers.

Today's supercomputers suck enough power out the grid to power tens, if not hundreds, of homes. Researchers detailed a significant milestone in IBM's aim to send information between multiple cores on a silicon chip using pulses of light through silicon, instead of electrical signals on 'wires'.

More computing cores on a single chip

IBM also announced High-k metal gates earlier this year. This is a solution to one of what the company calls "the industry's most vexing problems". In other words: transistors that leak current. But it's not only IBM that has been seeking to reduce the inefficient way in which electrical signals are passed around PC chips.

Intel's latest 45nm manufacturing process introduced Hafnium as the material used for the 'wires' communicating between different elements of a processor. The fruits of this labour are seen in Intel's latest Core 2 processor series - mainstream Penryn parts are set to debut in the New Year. Intel has also been working on silicon photonics, although IBM seems to be taking this process one stage further.

"Work is underway within IBM and in the industry to pack many more computing cores on a single chip, but today's on-chip communications technology would overheat and be far too slow to handle that increase in workload," said Dr. T.C. Chen, head of Science and Technology at IBM Research.

Electrical signals as light

"What we have done is a significant step toward building a vastly smaller and more power-efficient way to connect those cores, in a way that nobody has done before." Using light means data could be shoved around the chip 100 times faster while using 10 times less power than wires.

The IBM process uses what's known as a silicon Mach-Zehnder electro-optic modulator. This converts electrical signals into a series of light pulses. The modulator is up to 1,000 times smaller than previous incarnations of similar technology and could mean that complete optical networks are integrated onto single PC processors. A laser beam acts as a very fast "shutter" controlling whether the laser is blocked or transmitted. This is then received and converted into a stream of digital bits.

"Just like fibre optic networks have enabled the rapid expansion of the internet by enabling users to exchange huge amounts of data from anywhere in the world, IBM's technology is bringing similar capabilities to the computer chip," enthused Dr. Will Green, the lead IBM scientist on the project.


Dan (Twitter, Google+) is TechRadar's Former Deputy Editor and is now in charge at our sister site T3.com. Covering all things computing, internet and mobile he's a seasoned regular at major tech shows such as CES, IFA and Mobile World Congress. Dan has also been a tech expert for many outlets including BBC Radio 4, 5Live and the World Service, The Sun and ITV News.