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USAF works to improve silicon photonics processes

Photonics Spectra
May 2011
ARLINGTON, Va. – The US Air Force Office of Scientific Research announced that it will fund efforts to put silicon photonics within the grasp of scientists and startup companies. The new program will be called OpSIS, short for Optoelectronic Systems Integration in Silicon, and will be housed at the University of Washington’s Nanophotonics Lab in Seattle.

The OpSIS program’s goal is to bring prototyping capabilities within reach of startup companies and researchers. It will provide design rules, device-design support and design-flow development to nonexperts so they can design and integrate photonics and electronics.

Although many research groups are designing, building and testing silicon photonic devices or optical chips in-house, the OpSIS researchers will use a shared infrastructure at the foundry at BAE Systems in Manassas, Va. There, they will work toward creating high-end, on-shore manufacturing capabilities that they hope will be made available to a wider community.


A dark-field optical image of a silicon photonic chip is shown in comparison to the size of a penny. Courtesy of Elijah Douglas Christenson.


Over the past decade, silicon photonics has brought about a digital electronics revolution. But high cost and a lack of standard processes have kept complex photonic circuitry incorporating silicon chips has been out of reach for researchers in the past few years. In an effort to make silicon photonics more accessible, scientists are building a less expensive, next-generation silicon-based electro-optical chip using commercial nanofabrication tools; the new chips could improve data communications, lasers and detectors.

Silicon optical chips are crucial to the US Air Force because of their size, weight, power, rapid cycle time and program risk reduction – and, most importantly, because they can move information in computers using light and electricity.

By harnessing the ability to develop optical chips for commercial uses and create software tools that will make the design process easier, the integration of silicon photonics into new system capabilities is expected to impact the Air Force, the Department of Defense and commercial avionics.


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