The National Science Foundation has awarded Vishal Saxena, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Boise State University, with a prestigious CAREER award to investigate the next generation of optoelectronic chips to reduce the energy needed to sustain the Internet cloud while also using more sustainable options.
The profusion in mobile computing devices and apps and the seemingly unlimited data storage offered by the cloud has opened the door to a world of at-your-fingertip services encompassing production systems, banking, entertainment, social interaction, information distribution and research.
But the countless benefits are accompanied by an ever-expanding energy footprint that is not sustainable in the long-term, particularly when “big data” is added to the picture. As information on the cloud continues to grow exponentially, data centers have become among the fastest growing consumers of electricity in the United States. They currently account for more than 2 percent of the total power consumption in the United States, a number that is growing every year and consuming an ever-dwindling supply of fossil fuels.
The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research. The prestigious award opens doors to wider collaborations and will enable Saxena to build a sustainable research program in integrated circuit design.
Saxena’s five-year, $500,000 grant is titled “Mixed Signal Photonics Integrated Circuits for High-Performance Data Interfaces.” His work centers on developing novel data communication interfaces using photons (light) rather than electrons in next-generation hybrid optoelectronics chips to process and transfer data, resulting in a multi-fold increase in data capacity coupled with reduced energy consumption.
“We have reached the limits for how fast you can process and transmit information using electrons over copper cables,” Saxena said. “So we thought about leveraging photonics in a novel way where light is used for information processing as well as communication; light being the fastest signaling mechanism at our disposal. Using hybrid circuits that synergistically incorporate photonics with electronics allows for almost instantaneous communication, providing faster systems that use less power.
Saxena’s area of expertise is in integrated circuit design, but he also has a background in optical interconnect technology, thanks to his work as a doctoral student with Lightwire, an early startup in this area. When he was looking for an area of research that would speak to the NSF’s requirements for the CAREER grant, he knew that effectively combining mixed-signal circuits with photonics would be transformative.
Just a few millimeters square, the chips’ primary application is to power high performance exascale computing centers (and supercomputers) with a sustainable energy footprint. Future applications could include improvements in desktop computers, cell phone networks and more. Saxena even foresees the possibility of using the technology in biomedical applications including bio-sensing and low-cost DNA sequencing.
For individuals, the technology would bring instant connectivity to home and personal devices and enable telepresence.
“At over 100 gigabytes per second, you could have several streams of HDTV completely provided over the Internet, or work from home and feel like you were right there at the office. We could have computers with significantly improved performance and better mobile devices and networks,” he said. “And the fibers are made from glass, not copper, potentially enabling low-cost and more sustainable network infrastructure.”
Saxena said that his project also will offer research opportunities to undergraduate students and underrepresented groups. The project features an educational component to improve engineering curriculum by bringing light (i.e. photonics) to integrated circuit design and employing interactive learning methods to teach analog circuits, to prepare students for the workforce with necessary skills to drive future technology. Further, Saxena is actively seeking collaboration with the United States semiconductor industry to develop and manufacture the next generation of hybrid electronic-photonic chips.
The grant also will fund a Smart Environments for Sustainability summer camp for high school students. The project will link circuit design to wider issues of sustainability, engaging participants while also creating a pipeline of future undergraduate and graduates students in Boise State engineering programs.