Data speeds inside computers or across continents could get a boost from Intel research into hybrid processors.
The research may mean computers shuffle data faster
Intel researchers have solved a manufacturing problem that has delayed the creation of devices that can both generate and route light.
The breakthrough could mean cheaper and higher speed computer networks and help to speed up the transfer of data inside computers.
Intel said commercial versions of the hybrid chip may not appear until 2010.
The breakthrough revolves around the fusing of the two materials commonly used in computer chips and high-speed optical networks.
Silicon has been the mainstay of computer chip making for decades and its ability to move, amplify and detect light is well known.
However, silicon is not very good at generating light. As a result high-speed continent-spanning networks often use components made from an exotic material known as indium phosphide that possesses very good light generating properties.
Intel researchers, working with Professor John Bowers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, have found an easy way to unite silicon and indium phosphide.
The researchers discovered that the use during manufacturing of an oxygen plasma acts as a "glass glue" that tightly bonds the two materials into one device.
Applying a voltage makes the indium phosphide generate light which can then be manipulated by the silicon elements of the hybrid chip.
The close mating of the two materials could mean that data can get on and off computer chips far more quickly than it can via conventional connections.
It should also mean much closer links between computers and data networks. Intel envisages a day when silicon chips sport dozens of the tiny lasers and their light-manipulating machinery.
The fact that it uses the relatively low-cost manufacturing techniques used to make silicon chips could slash the cost of making components for high-speed telecommunications networks.
"This marks the beginning of highly integrated silicon photonic chips that can be mass-produced at low cost," said Prof Bowers.
The research builds on earlier Intel research on making silicon generate light and on improving its ability to direct it.