Researchers at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University have developed a technique that allows them to use light, rather than electricity, to send data between microchips.

The technology will greatly increase the speed at which data travels in computer and networking systems, according to one of the inventors.

It relies on the same technology used in fibre-optic communication, but adds a new material for building chips to the equation. While computer chips are currently built using silicon, the new technique, called "silicon on sapphire", uses thin slices of silicon placed on top of a layer of synthetic sapphire to achieve its effects, according to Alyssa Apsel, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins and co-inventor of the technology. Apsel co-invented the solution with professor Andreas Andreou.

Light speed When data is transmitted to the silicon-on-sapphire chip by a wire (chips currently use wires to transmit data), it is then turned into light and beamed through the sapphire using a microscopic laser built onto the chip, Apsel said. The data is then sent to either another part of the chip or, using an optical fiber, to another chip, she said. When the laser containing the data enters the new chip, it is received by an optical receiver circuit that transforms the light back into electricity, she said.

Apsel expects that commercial implementation of the technology is "not very far away" and could happen within a few years.

The researchers expect that data transmitted using the new technology could move as much as 100 times faster than data sent over wires. The silicon-on-sapphire technology will also use less power than current chips, the University claimed.

Sending data as light, rather than electricity, is preferable because "light moves faster than electrons in a medium", Apsel said.

The technology could also help cut costs for high-speed transfer technologies, she said. Apsel also sees potential applications for the technology in optical processing, as well as in local-area networking.