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FEATURE SILICON PHOTONICS


Money talks International companies like Intel and IBM are spending vast sums on investigating and developing silicon photonics, which smaller companies and research projects would find hard to compete with. Baets at Imec commented that the market for transceivers for short reach datacom applications is typically addressed by big players. ‘You can’t enter the market for high-speed transceivers as an SME. You must be an Intel or a Samsung to enter this market,’ he said. ‘It would be a shame if this wonderful technology that is silicon photonics would only be deployed for these very large volume applications.’


Baets explained that getting silicon photonics wafers processed in a CMOS fab is expensive. The chips themselves are cheap because so many are made per wafer and processed in large batches, but, in his opinion, there needs to be a supply chain where moderately sized applications can make use of this technology. There are already mechanisms that make this possible, but mostly they occur in a research or prototyping context, he said. Here, groups run the processing in multi-project wafer (MPW)


mode, where the designs of a number of users are aggregated onto a mask set. The chips are then processed collectively and the wafers distributed to the various users. ‘In that mode, you can have a substantial cost sharing of the whole process,’ Baets remarked. ‘This has been common in microelectronics for the past 30 years. So, it’s a model that’s well-known to the CMOS community and it can also be applied to silicon photonics. ‘To date though, the MPW model is limited


to research and prototyping, but is not yet fully industrial for silicon photonics,’ he added. ‘That’s [MPW processing] certainly one of the things that will have a huge added value for a variety of markets, especially in sensing and life science applications.’ Hofrichter at IBM agrees: ‘One of the reasons for the success of electronics is that electronic building blocks, essentially transistors, are so standardised, which is currently not the case for optical components.’ He said that in order to enable a broader market, standardisation is needed, not only for the components on chip, but also for packaging. ‘It’s crucial that the packaging is standardised so the cost goes


down,’ he added. ‘In the future, more multi- project wafers would dramatically drive the cost down. Currently, this is not our primary focus at IBM, but it could enable a broader market to be accessed.’ Professor Reed commented that the presence of huge multinational companies in the field has increased enormously in the last decade, and is a very good thing. ‘The difference between silicon photonics before these massive companies were involved and now is that it’s moving much more quickly. Not just because the big players are putting big money in, but because it’s focusing people’s minds on applications. You can see that if you produce something significant in this area, then there’s a good chance that it might get exploited, which focuses your mind on what the real challenges are.’


Reed added: ‘Overall, the whole field is massively buoyant. It does mean that there are a lot more players in the field, but it also means that there is a lot more innovation and a lot more interest, and if you’ve got some good stuff to offer, the chances of making an impact are enhanced.’’ l


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