Researchers at Intel have moved a step closer to creating chips that transmit data at high speeds using light instead of electrons. However, products based on the technology remain some way off.

A team of researchers unveiled a laser modulator made of silicon that is capable of encoding data at speeds up to 40Gbits/s, a significant increase in speed for the company.

The new modulator, which converts electrical data into light, opens the door to high-speed optical interconnects for computers, and when combined with 25 hybrid silicon lasers on a single chip, could be capable of transmitting terabits of data per second, according to Ansheng Liu, a principal engineer at Intel’s Corporate Technology Group, in a blog post.

Optical interconnects are desirable because fibre optics offer more bandwidth and carry data farther than copper, which is currently used to connect chips and move data inside a computer. Because they use laser light to transmit data, optical interconnects also eliminate the heat created by resistance as electrons pass through a copper trace.

Liu did not offer any indication of when Intel’s silicon-photonics technology will find its way into a commercial product, suggesting commercial products are at least several years away.

Intel has been working on silicon laser modulators for some time, hoping to bring down costs by manufacturing these components with the same technology used to produce silicon computer chips. The company claimed its first breakthrough in 2004, with a 1GHz modulator the company claimed was 50 times faster than any other silicon modulator. The following year, Intel developed a modulator capable of encoding data at speeds up to 10Gbits/s.

The 40Gbits/s speed achieved by the company’s latest modulator matches the fastest modulators made using other, more expensive components, Liu said.