EU Project Opens Doors for Optical Chips
EINDHOVEN, The Netherlands, Nov. 2, 2010 — In October, Eindhoven saw the kick-off of the international R&D project Paradigm (Photonic Advanced Research and Development for Integrated Generic Manufacturing). Led by Eindhoven University of Technology, the project is intended to standardize the development and production of optical chips, making them much cheaper and bringing all kinds of new products within reach. The cost of the program is €13 million ($18.2 million), of which the EU will contribute the lion’s share. It is expected to open the door to a new market, potentially worth tens of billions of euros.
Optical chips, chips that work with light signals instead of electronic signals, are in great demand to process the ever-growing Internet traffic flows, but they also have the potential to impact many other application areas. The increasingly larger data flows in computers and in processors with dozens of arithmetic cores require optical components as well.
Whereas the voluminous Internet traffic is already running via light signals — in glass fibers — in these processing nodes the signal processing still takes place electronically. Those nodes are reaching their limits presenting an opportunity for optical switches, also known as photonic devices, to provide the solution to this problem.
An optical chip. The actual size is 4.5 x 5,5 millimeters.
The Paradigm project is to ensure that this solution is affordable. Sixteen parties have joined forces in the project, including leading European enterprises, universities and knowledge institutes: Oclaro, Alcatel-Thales III-V Lab, two Fraunhofer Institutes (HHI and IZM), Philips Miplaza, CIP, Gooch & Housego, Linkra, Willow Photonics, the universities of Cambridge, Chalmers, Milano and Eindhoven, and three design software companies: Phoenix, Photon Design and Filarete. The COBRA Institute of Eindhoven University of Technology is the project coordinator.
At present, the toughest bottleneck for the large-scale application of optical chips is the price level for their development and manufacture. It is high in comparison with commonplace electronic chips. “Microelectronics cost a few cents per square millimeter of chip, as the technology is mature and highly standardized,” said Meint Smit, professor of optical communication technology at the department of electrical engineering commented. “In addition, its development costs are low because we have sophisticated software for the fast and accurate design of the chips. We should also like to attain that capacity with photonic devices.”
It is particularly products that are not currently made in large volumes that the project aims to make more than ten times cheaper, as a result of standardization of the design methods and the production techniques involved. Moreover, companies will be able to make prototypes and put products on the market much faster. Smit expects that within six years a large portion of all optical chips can be made in this standardized manner.
Cheaper production methods will also make new products viable. An example is the fiber sensor, which can be used to measure all sorts of things, such as tensions in bridges, airplanes or windmill blades, and can give off timely warnings against overload. As the technology currently stands, the most expensive item is the optical readout unit, the price of which is expected to drop considerably through integration.
Researchers also envisage other applications in medical instruments and in computers. All in all, this is a market that may ultimately achieve ten percent of the scope of the microelectronics market, Smit estimates. This implies revenues of billions of euros. Smit believes that the technology being developed in Paradigm will be commercially available by 2016.
Now, Europe has a technological edge on the rest of the world, according to Smit, and the new project must strengthen this position. This edge is the result of current European projects for the standardization of optical integration technology. In total there are projects running in Europe now amounting to over fifty million euros, most of which revolve around two technologies (indium phosphide and silicon) which jointly cover a large part of existing as well as future applications.
Less than a year ago the Europic project was started, which focuses on the standardization of existing indium phosphide chip fabrication technology. Paradigm concentrates on developing an improved technology, thanks to which the performance of standardized chips will before long be able to compete with components that are currently far more expensive.
Paradigm will also tackle the 'packaging' of the optical chips, facilitating connection with one or more glass fibers. Today that packaging is as expensive as the chips themselves, so it must also become cheaper. Paradigm technology will enhance the economic viability of these standardized chips still further, so that this technology will become the dominant one for optical chips.
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