IBM researchers have announced an important breakthrough today that could change the way computer chips communicate with each other in the future. The company has created a low-power device that can transfer data at high speeds using light, instead of electrical signals over copper wires. The light pulses are transmitted via silicon circuits and can supposedly handle data transfers of up to 40Gbit/s with a 1.5 volt power supply.

The device is called a nanophotonic avalanche photodetector and is made of silicon and germanium – both used in current microprocessor chips. The term comes from the way the exchange of information happens, as explained by IBM: "Analogous to a snow avalanche on a steep mountain slope, an incoming light pulse initially frees just a few charge carriers which in turn free others until the original signal is amplified many times."

The rather complicated concept is not new but IBM claims it has been able overcome the speed limitations of previous systems from the likes of Intel and others. It will be a while before we see this integrated into mainstream manufacturing, though. IBM says probably five years for high-end servers and another five for video game systems and cell phones.