Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of Local Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Researchers at IBM (NYSE: IBM) are using light on a nanotechnology scale in a breakthrough that they say will mean huge advances in semiconductor and computer speeds.

Big Blue unveiled its Integrated Silicon nanophotonics technology on Wednesday at a trade show in Japan.

The breakthrough could lead to processors that can operate 1,000 times faster than today’s fastest supercomputers.

Nanophotonics could enable supercomputers that operate at a trillion operations per second – or exascale.

“CMOS [complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor] Integrated Silicon Nanophotonics is expected to facilitate terabyte-per-second class of single-chip transceivers that will further IBM’s Exascale computing program, which is aimed at producing a supercomputer capable of performing one million trillion calculations—or an Exaflop—in a single second,” IBM scientists wrote in a blog.

The new technology should be available commercially next year.

“IBM has achieved a significant advancement in chip technology that will produce smaller, faster and more power-efficient chips than is feasible with current chip-making techniques,” the IBM researchers explained. “The new technology is called CMOS Integrated Silicon Nanophotonics and is the result of a 10-year research effort across IBM’s global research labs.

“IBM researchers have generated dozens of pending and issued patents associated with the technology, which integrates electrical and optical devices on the same piece of silicon, and enables computer chips to communicate using pulses of light (instead of electrical signals).”

Will Green, an IBM researcher working with the project, told EE Times that nanophotonics “can meet the requirements for exascale systems, by scaling up per-chip transceiver bandwidth and integration density.”

Green pointed out to IDG News that the breakthrough could enable IBM to build an exascale computer by 2020.

“In an exascale system, interconnects have to be able to push exabytes per second across the network,” Green said. “This is an interesting milestone for system builders [who are] looking at building … exascale systems in 10 years.”

Nanophotonics has been touted as a major advance in chip technology for years.

“The situation is similar to when Marconi demonstrated the first transatlantic radio transmission,” Rick Doherty, principal analyst at The Envisioneering Group, told EE Times. “Today there are oceans separating our digital systems, boards and chips, but now IBM has proven that optical interconnects can crossover those oceans using traditional, integrated CMOS lithography.”

Just how big is the breakthrough? Remember analog phone lines and 14k modems?

The Wall Street Journal noted that IBM’s advance is similar to the breakthroughs made in network communications by use of optics.

“Optical technologies have revolutionized long-distance communications, replacing low-capacity copper wiring that carries electrical signals with combinations of lasers and fiber-optic cabling that send information over many high-speed channels,” The Journal said. “Companies that include IBM, Intel Corp. and Luxtera Inc. are replicating that phenomenon on a microscopic scale, using techniques from high-volume semiconductor manufacturing.”

Read more about the project at IBM’s Silicon Integrated Nanophotonics website.

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