For decades, the semiconductor industry has broken silicon wafers into smaller chips to improve manufacturing yields. Sun Microsystems has found...

Share story

For decades, the semiconductor industry has broken silicon wafers into smaller chips to improve manufacturing yields.

Sun Microsystems has found a way to reconnect the chips so they can communicate with each other at such high speeds that computer designers can build a new generation of computers that are faster, more energy-efficient and more compact.

The company is announcing today a $44 million contract from the Pentagon to explore replacing the wires between computer chips with laser beams.

The technology, part of a field of computer science known as silicon photonics, would eradicate the most daunting bottleneck facing today’s supercomputer designers: moving information rapidly to solve problems that require hundreds or thousands of processors.

Computer scientists have long sought a way to make faster and cheaper computers by making larger chips on a single wafer of silicon. If Sun’s idea can be proved technically feasible and manufactured commercially, it would be possible to create more-compact machines that are a thousand times faster than today’s computers, the company said.

Each chip would be able to communicate directly with every other chip via a beam of laser that could carry billions of bits of data a second.

The Sun researchers acknowledge that their project is a significant gamble.

“This is a high-risk program,” said Ron Ho, a researcher at Sun Laboratories who is one of the leaders of the effort. “We expect a 50 percent chance of failure, but if we win we can have as much as a thousand times increase in performance.”

Sun’s partners on the project are Stanford and the University of California, San Diego; and two silicon photonics firms, Luxtera and Kotura.