Correction: This story has been updated from its original version to correct Jeffrey Shainline’s title as assistant professor. Shainline was a postdoctoral associate at the time the research was done.
A team of CU electrical engineers recently partnered with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to improve the way computers run.
The collaboration between the two universities resulted in a breakthrough in microprocessor technology, promising increased energy efficiency and bandwidth density in computers.
The research was funded by The Pentagon via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. The Idaho based company Micron Technology Inc., which designs and builds advanced memory and semiconductor technologies, was a third partner in the work, according to a CU news release.
CU electrical engineering graduate student Mark Wade said students shouldn’t expect to see the new technology in the next version of their smartphones or laptops.
Wade assisted with the project and said the research was meant to benefit larger databases that process vast amounts of information through their servers daily, like those owned by IBM and Intel.
“Don’t think of it as the size changing, but as the energy efficiency and how much power they will consume to be able to operate,” he said. “Our technology can push around a lot more information using a lot less power.”
The National Institute of Standards and Technology physicist and former postdoctoral associate Jeffery Shainline said the new technology was partially created by eliminating some of the inefficiencies in computers based on metal wiring.
“It turns out that copper, when trying to send certain amounts of data at certain speeds, loses a lot of energy to heat,” Shainline said. “If you try to scale this technology then you’re producing so much heat that you’re melting the chips.”
“Instead, you can use a light signal, photons, to send information from point A to point B without wasting anything to heat,” he said.
MIT researchers worked on circuit design while the CU Boulder team focused on signal processing technology.
“You can think about it as, here in Colorado, we handle most all of the photonic work,” Wade said. “So if on a microchip we have photonic devices and electronic devices, we design the photonics and our collaborators at MIT design the electronics. We have to meet in the middle.”
But the importance of this recent breakthrough rests in its commercial applications, with companies like IBM, Intel and Oracle already having declared that they will use devices very similar to what CU’s research is producing.
CU’s project leader and assistant professor Milos Popovic said down the line this technology may be used in devices available to the average consumer.
“In order to convince the semiconductor industry to incorporate photonics into microelectronics you need to make it so that the billions of dollars of existing infrastructure does not need to be wiped out and redone,” Popovic said in the news release. “We are building photonics inside the exact same process that they build.”
Some perceive CU’s working relationship with MIT and international corporations as prestige booster. Senior economics major Benjamin Mingo, 22, was excited when he heard about the collaboration.
“It benefits all of us students to have a department of our school, especially one in science, working on such an important project for business,” Mingo said. “This raises the bar for our own academic performance.”
Students like junior astronomy major Allyssa Riley, 20, see a real benefit in having the opportunity to be a part of CU teams advancing technology.
“I can see myself getting involved in research projects like these once I graduate, or at least I want to, because they’re a major step towards advancing your career and for entering the industry that years of doing a specific major ought to ultimately lead to,” Riley said.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Gabriel Larsen-Santos at firstname.lastname@example.org.