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The future of computing may lie not in electrons, but in photons -- that is, in microprocessors that use light instead of electrical signals. But these so-called photonic devices are typically built using customized methods that make them difficult and expensive to manufacture.

Now, engineers have demonstrated that low power photonic devices can be fabricated using standard chip-making processes. They have achieved what the researchers dub a major milestone in photonic technology. The work will be presented at this year's Optical Fiber Communication (OFC) Conference and Exposition, being held March 9-13 in San Francisco.

The two new devices -- a modulator and a tunable filter -- are as energy-efficient as some of the best devices around, the researchers say, and were built using a standard IBM advanced Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) process -- the same chip-making process used to build many commercially available chips, some of which are found in Sony's Playstation 3 and also in Watson, the supercomputer that won Jeopardy! in 2011.

"As far as we know, we're the first ones to get silicon photonics natively integrated into an advanced CMOS process and to achieve energy efficiencies that are very competitive with electronics," said Mark Wade of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who will present his team's work at OFC. Wade's co-authors include researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley.

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