Scientists and engineers are always looking for ways to speed up and more efficiently configure computing devices to maximize the flow of data. There are a lot of applications today that require the exchange of huge volumes of data in real-time.
MIT scientists have created a hair-like plastic polymer cable that can transmit data ten times faster than copper USB cables. The scientists recently reported speeds on the new cables in excess of 100 gigabits per second. The new fibers mimic the best characteristics of copper cable in that electronic signals can be conveyed directly from device to device.
Another interesting characteristic of polymer cables is that it’s possible to measure the flow of electrons through each cable from outside – something that is impossible to do with fiber optic cables. This is a key function that can be used to direct the flow of data at the chip level in fast computing devices.
If brought to market, these cables will solve several problems in the computing industry. The new fibers mimic the best feature of copper wires like USB cables are easily compatible with computer chips and other network devices. A copper Ethernet cable can connect two devices directly with no need to reformat data. Fiber cables are much faster than copper but require an intermediate device to convert light signals back into electronic signals at each device.
There are immediate uses for faster cables in applications like data centers, self-driving cars, manufacturing robots, and devices in space. The new cables would be a benefit anywhere that large amounts of data need to be transferred in real-time from device to device. Since the polymer fibers are thin, they could also this also be used to speed up data transfer between chips within devices.
The data transmission rates on the polymer cables are currently at 100 gigabits per second for a distance of around 30 centimeters. The MIT scientists believe they will be able to goose speeds to as much as a terabit while increasing transmission distances to a meter and beyond.
There is a long way to go to move a new technology from laboratory to production. There would first need to be industry standards developed and agreed upon by the iEEE. Using new kinds of cables means changing the interface into devices and chips. There are also the challenges of mass manufacturing the new cables and of integrated them into the existing supply chain.
I’m always amazed at how modern science seems to always find solutions when we need them. We are just now starting to routinely use computer applications like AI that rely on quickly moving huge amounts of data. Just a decade ago nobody would have been talking about chips that needed anything close to 100 gigabits of input or output. It’s easy to assume that computing devices somehow get faster when chips are made faster, but these new cables act as a reminder that there are numerous components required in making faster computing. Fast chips do not good if we can’t get data in and out of the chip fast enough.