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A team of Israeli researchers at Intel has achieved a breakthrough in chip development that promises to change the world of computing and telecommunications within 5 to 10 years.

For the first time, the team succeeded in developing electro-optical chipsets based on silicon wafers capable of converting electronic signals to optic signals within the chip. They have the potential to be mass produced at the same cost as standard electronic chips. Currently, the manufacturing cost of an optical chip (which is not silicon based) runs into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

According to Intel's assessment, the electro-optic chips developed during the past year and a half at the company's Jerusalem facility will replace the standard electronic chips used for communications between computer components, allowing this communication to be conducted at the speed of light - 10 times the current speed.

"Today, the fast processors operate at speeds of three gigahertz, but their surroundings still work at speeds of hundreds of megahertz and, therefore, don't succeed in exploiting their speeds," explained Amir Elstein, the co-CEO of Intel Israel and director of Intel's Jerusalem facility. "When the chips, the processor and the ports of the computer speak at the same speed, which will be about 10 gigahertz, the computer's capability will be totally different," he added.

The new development will also change the multi-leg appearance of today's chipsets. "There will still be several legs on each chip, but most of the information will be transfered via a single optic opening of one optic port," Elstein said.

An Intel press release explained how the new technology works: "Researchers split a beam of light into two separate beams as it passed through silicon, and then used a novel transistor-like device to hit one beam with an electric charge, inducing a `phase shift.' When the two beams of light are recombined, the phase shift induced between the two arms makes the light exiting the chip go on and off at over one gigahertz (one billion bits of data per second), 50 times faster than previously produced on silicon. This on and off pattern of light can be translated into the 1's and 0's needed to transmit data."

Patrick Gelsinger, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Intel, called this "a significant step toward building optical devices that move data around inside a computer at the speed of light. It is the kind of breakthrough that ripples across an industry over time, enabling other new devices and applications. It could help make the Internet run faster, build much faster high-performance computers and enable high bandwidth applications like ultra-high-definition displays or vision recognition systems."

Elstein said last week that the company has not yet completed planning the production of the new optical devices, but that Intel's Kiryat Gat plant may be involved. "This is the greatest R&D success. There is no need to build new factories - faster chips can be manufactured at lower cost, with the same production infrastructure used in existing facilities. We took a theoretical physical affect and, using existing infrastructure, moved it up to a level that was previously impossible to implement," Elstein added.