Polymer cables could replace Thunderbolt & USB, deliver more than twice the speed

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware edited March 8
Researchers are working on a cabling system that could provide data transfer speeds multiple times faster than existing USB connections using an extremely thin polymer cable, in a system that echoes the design path of Thunderbolt.

An Apple Thunderbolt 3 Pro cable
An Apple Thunderbolt 3 Pro cable


Presented at the February IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference, the research aims to develop a connection type that offers far better connectivity than current methods. In part, it aims to accomplish this by replacing copper wiring with something else.

Copper is typically used for wires like USB and HDMI to handle data transfers, but it requires a lot of power to work for high levels of data transmission. "There's a fundamental tradeoff between the amount of energy burned and the rate of information exchanged," said MIT alumni and lead author Jack Holloway.

While the "increasingly bulky and costly" copper could be replaced by fiber optic cables, that introduces its own issues. As silicon chips have difficulty dealing with photons, this makes the interconnection between the cable and the computers more challenging to optimize.

According to Holloway, "there are all kinds of expensive and complex integration schemes, but from an economics perspective, it's not a great solution," which led to developers creating their own version.

Combining the benefits of copper and fiber optic conduits, a plastic polymer is used by the researchers. This makes it cheaper to manufacture than copper wires, which could be an attractive proposition for cable producers.

The polymer can also use sub-terahertz electromagnetic signals, which is more energy-efficient than copper at high data loads. It is believed this efficiency brings it close to that of fiber optic systems, but crucially with better compatibility with silicon chips.

Low-cost chips are paired with the polymer conduit that can generate the high-frequency signals powerful enough to transmit into the conduit directly. As such, the system is expected to be manufactured with standard methods, which also makes it cost-effective to produce.

The cables themselves can also be extremely thin, with the cross-sectional area of the interconnect measuring 0.4 millimeters by a quarter millimeter, smaller than typical copper variants.

That small hair-like cable can be used to transport data over three different parallel channels, enabling it to achieve a total bandwidth of 105 gigabits per second. Bundling conduits together could bring the cables into the terabit-per-second range, while still remaining at a reasonable cost.

Echoes of Thunderbolt

The system, using chips on either end of a cable, uses a relatively similar concept to Thunderbolt cables, albeit with a different conduit in use. In each case, chips inside the cable are used to manage data being fed into the cable at one end and out the other, while also handling interfacing with the conduit itself.

It seems plausible that such a system could be employed for a future Thunderbolt-style connection, allowing it to go far beyond the current 40Gbps upper limit.

Another connection to Thunderbolt is its research funding. While Thunderbolt was developed by Intel and Apple, the unnamed polymer research was also funded by Intel, alongside Raytheon, the Naval Research Laboratory, and the Office of Naval Research.
Dogperson

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 13
    baconstangbaconstang Posts: 659member
    Interesting.  I guess the polymer has an advantage over copper when it comes to series inductance?

    Not much info on transmission distance.  Are they just for interface to peripherals, or for can they be used for facility distribution (100-300m)?
    edited March 8 Hank2.0watto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 13
    rcfarcfa Posts: 936member
    More EMP proof than copper?
    Hank2.0watto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 13
    hexclockhexclock Posts: 890member
    Is everyone going to complain when they change the connector again? 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 13
    hexclock said:
    Is everyone going to complain when they change the connector again? 
    In theory, they wouldn't have to, right?  Nothing says the ends of the cables can't terminate in USB-C nubs.
    baconstangwatto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 13
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 2,883member
    rcfa said:
    More EMP proof than copper?
    Probably not - EMPs cause induced voltages; all you need for that is a conductor. The material doesn’t matter. 

    hexclock said:
    Is everyone going to complain when they change the connector again? 
    In theory, they wouldn't have to, right?  Nothing says the ends of the cables can't terminate in USB-C nubs.
    What’s the limit of The USB C connector? 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 13
    coolfactorcoolfactor Posts: 1,789member
    The headline is putting readers at a disadvantage, misleading them to think that this "cable" technology is replacing "protocols" and "connectors". It's not. USB and Thunderbolt cables could both theoretically be made using this new type of cable. Less-so USB because the current copper cabling is not presenting any technical limitations on the protocol, but Thunderbolt is maxing out bacause of copper (when fiber is not suitable).

    watto_cobrafastasleep
  • Reply 7 of 13
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 5,460member
    I'm confused... this "polymer" is fancy-speak for plastic so this is essentially fiber-optic right? What am I missing?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 13
    dewmedewme Posts: 3,398member
    sflocal said:
    I'm confused... this "polymer" is fancy-speak for plastic so this is essentially fiber-optic right? What am I missing?

    No, it's conductive polymer. The signalling is based on varying the electrical charge, rather than varying electrical current flow (copper wire) or varying light intensity/photons (fiber optic).
    edited March 8 watto_cobrafastasleepapplguy
  • Reply 9 of 13
    entropysentropys Posts: 2,822member
    I love technological progress.  A lot.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 13
    rcfa said:
    More EMP proof than copper?
    No - it's still an electromagnetic signal that's being sent down the line. Gotta use fiberoptic cabling for that, which also cannot have it's data intercepted and decoded by monitoring the faint electromagnetic signals just outside the cabling. 
    baconstangwatto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 13
    Say what you want about Intel, and I know they're in the middle of manufacturing woes, but they have helped push the world of connectivity forward in a significant way.  First with inventing and open sourcing USB, then came thunderbolt which is amazing.  Now they're researching ways to move beyond copper wires and increase the bandwidth. Just the other day on a Tomshardware podcast celebrating 10 years or thunderbolt, intel said Thunderbolt 5 should bring double thunderbolt 4 speeds. 
    watto_cobraDogperson
  • Reply 12 of 13
    mattinozmattinoz Posts: 1,490member
    At what distance can they operate?
    I assume fairly short or they'd brag about it

    watto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 13
    avon b7avon b7 Posts: 5,586member
    mattinoz said:
    At what distance can they operate?
    I assume fairly short or they'd brag about it

    At least 100m I would imagine, which would be more than enough in a consumer setting.

    In an infrastructure setting I find it hard to imagine any sort of niche it could hook into. 

    We already have Tb/s speeds - per strand - over optical infrastructure and costs are coming down quickly (along with size, weight and energy consumption). At the same time, more and more bandwidth is becoming available. Interconnect technology is moving at a fast pace too. 
    baconstangmattinoz
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