March 8, 2001

1 Min Read

British scientists at the University of Surrey say they have found a way to get silicon to emit light, making it possible to build smaller and more powerful microchips than ever.

Modern telecommunications networks use light to send signals down optical fibers, instead of electricity down wires. These systems are driven by silicon-based microchips, which normally won't emit light, so they must be attached to separate light-emitting diodes (LEDs). This keeps optical circuits unnecessarily large and complex, and has been a major roadblock to making chips smaller and faster. But the team at the University of Surrey, led by professor Kevin Homewood, found that bombarding silicon with a boron laser creates microscopic loop-shaped cracks in the surface. The enclosed area acts like a crystal, capable of emitting light when a charge is applied to it.

The silicon-based LEDs are already almost as efficient as conventional LEDs, and the chips can be manufactured by using current technology, so chip factories would require minimal updating, Homewood told the BBC.

"Something of this nature is of high interest in the semiconductor industry," says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Research. He says that all the semiconductor companies have been trying to figure out how to shrink chips, and that if the British team's discovery pans out, it would be a very big deal.

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