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Polymer in cables to boost data transfer

By replacing copper with a conductive plastic polymer, researchers plan to increase the throughput of computer cables to compete with optical fibre at a lower cost. A single wire, as thin as a hair, is enough to reach more than 100 gigabits per second and could eventually replace the current USB and Thunderbolt cables.

While the copper pair of our telephone network is gradually being replaced by fiber optics, the copper computer cables (USB, Thunderbolt and even HDMI) could also soon belong to the past. In a study presented at the International Conference on Semiconductor Circuits (ISSCC), researchers from Raytheon, MIT and Intel developed a new cable with a much higher throughput and as fine as a hair.

To transfer large amounts of data, copper cables need a lot of electrical power. Until now, the main alternative has been fiber optics, but these cables require complex and expensive converters to be compatible with silicon chips. The cables created by the researchers use a conductive plastic polymer, which is very light and more economical to produce. A single wire is 0.4 millimetres thick.

One terabit per second cables coming up?

These new cables transmit data using sub-terahertz frequencies, with a much lower power consumption than copper cables. In a design similar to the Thunderbolt standard, chips are built into the connectors to convert the signal. The data is transferred simultaneously on three channels, giving a total capacity of 105 gigabits per second.

The researchers indicate that it would be possible to combine several polymer wires into a single cable to further increase the transfer speed. The output will be exceptional, said Ruonan Han, one of the authors of the article. It could reach one terabit per second, and still at low cost.” It remains to be seen whether these cables will use the current USB or Thunderbolt connector, or whether manufacturers will decide to adopt a new type of connector.

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