Light breaks chip performance barrier

With excessive amounts of homework, tests, and the hundreds of extra-curricular activities offered here at Mines, many students are unaware of the exciting research happening right in their own backyard.

In the physics department, master’s graduate Jon Banks talks about the research he is involved in. Working in a research group, Banks focuses on Integrated Optics, which essentially means he is figuring out how to put fiber optics on a processor chip, virtually eliminating the communication time between cores on a multi-core processor. With the speeds of current processors, the last real bottleneck within the chip itself is how the individual cores send information between themselves. What this particular group of researchers is trying to do is to eliminate that bottleneck by placing circuits that use light on the chip itself. This would pave the way for vast increases in processing power, potentially making it feasible to use 20 cores on a single chip.
Banks’ main task within this group was testing the chips themselves to verify their functionality. “I really like doing these experiments, just finding out the different characteristics of things,” Banks commented.

Many students have the preconception that students are not the ones doing the ‘fun’ stuff; assuming professors and the faculty run experiments while the students work on the write-ups and papers.

In reality, the students do the experiments, run the simulations, etc. The professors are just there to oversee the operation and to help with the experiments if something goes wrong. “The professors also come and help you do the experiments, so it’s not like they’re never in the lab”, Banks adds. Most advisers spend their time in the administrative and technical realm, as they oversee management of the experiment, progress, and budgets.

For Banks, that advisor is David Flammer, a 2000 Mines graduate. Working on research since 2006, Flammer further explained the work in Integrated Optics. “Intel in particular is doing significant research in optical interconnects… what they’re looking at doing is using optics to eliminate that bottleneck created when you put multiple processing cores on a single chip.”

The applications for Integrated Optics are numerous, ranging from CPUs in computers to smartphones, televisions, cameras, really anything that operates using a processor of some kind. And the possibilities for optical switches and circuitry do not stop at processors. Currently the main reason we don’t have Internet upload or download speeds in the gigabyte per second range is because the switches on either end of a fiber optic cable cannot handle that amount of data. People like Banks and Flammer are on the cutting edge of this research, and it’s happening here, at Mines.

For students interested in research opportunity, Banks offered some advice. “If you want to do research, definitely talk to professors early. I know there are people who have started doing research in their sophomore and junior years.” Flammer agreed, saying, “There are a lot of opportunities out there, it’s just a matter of looking for them.”

There are definitely projects that require some experience, but talk to professors even if you don’t think you have the necessary experience. One additional piece of advice Jon gave was to “get your papers published, like the papers you helped on, and put that on your resume, because that will help you get a job in the future.”

There are plenty of research opportunities like Integrated Optics, and Mines is leading the way in developing students and new technologies.

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