IBM says it has made a breakthrough in converting electrical signals into light pulses that brings closer the day when supercomputing, which now requires huge machines, will be done on a single chip.

In research published in the journal Optics Express, IBM said it had reached a milestone in the quest to connect hundreds or thousands of processing cores on a tiny chip by eliminating the wires required to connect them.

The semiconductor industry is evolving multi-core chips that take up less space than multiple single-core chips but they are extremely power-hungry and produce large amounts of heat, factors that are holding back improvements in computing power.

IBM's Cell processor which powers the Sony PlayStation 3 -- one of the most advanced chips there is today -- has nine cores, or brains.

Using light instead of wires to send information between the cores by using a silicon Mach-Zehnder electro-optic modulator can be as much as 100 times faster and use 10 times less power than wires, IBM says.

The new modulator IBM has developed is 100 to 1,000 times smaller than previously demonstrated comparable modulators, IBM said on Thursday, paving the way for significant reductions in cost, energy and heat while increasing bandwidth.

Just like fiber optic networks have enabled the rapid expansion of the Internet by enabling users to exchange huge amounts of data from anywhere in the world, IBM's technology is bringing similar capabilities to the computer chip, IBM's lead scientist on the project, Will Green, said in a statement.

We believe this is a major advancement in the field of on-chip silicon nanophotonics.

Technology services company IBM is also the world leader in supercomputers, which are used for problems requiring intensive calculations, for example in quantum physics, weather forecasting and molecular modeling.

IBM said future tiny supercomputers on a chip could expend as little energy as a light bulb, compared with today's supercomputers, which can use as much energy as powering hundreds of homes.

(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; editing by Sue Thomas)