Inside Advanced Scale Challenges|Wednesday, December 13, 2017
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Silicon Photonics Emerging to Meet Bandwidth Demand 

Hyper-scale datacenters and high-bandwidth, high-data-rate telecommunications applications are expected to drive demand for silicon optics technology that integrates fiber optics with CMOS chip manufacturing and three-dimensional chip stacking, a market research concludes.

Along with the expansion of datacenter capacity and cloud computing, Frost & Sullivan said the scaling of silicon photonics is spurred by high-data-traffic applications like the Internet of Things (IoT). "High-speed data computation is expected to be the prime need of the market in the near future that [silicon photonics] would address," the analyst said in a market survey.

Demand for optical chip technologies is expected to grow once current manufacturing hurdles are cleared, lowering costs while providing the performance required for enterprise adoption. Among the challenges identified by Frost & Sullivan are developing chip process technology to enable cost-effective mass production of silicon photonic components. Those processes must be compatible with current CMOS approaches that could be used to integrate optics into electronic devices.

CMOS, which stands for complementary metal-oxide semiconductor, is a widely used silicon chip manufacturing technology that among other things offers greater power efficiency.

Among the keys to expanding the use of photonics to transport data is finding new ways to use silicon as a substrate.

"The impact of silicon photonics has already being felt in the telecommunication space, albeit at a premium," the report noted. "The rate of data transmission has drastically increased paving the way for high speed computing, IoT-enabled devices and connected systems. Innovations in silicon photonics are evolving from data transmission to data computation, thereby widening the scope of impact."

Among the keys to expanding the use of photonics to transport data is finding new ways to use silicon as a substrate. The report notes, however, that chipmakers have thus far been stymied by a lack of standard tools, testing schemes and chip packaging technologies. Three-dimensional chip stacking is one promising approach, the researcher notes.

Those integration techniques could help speed development of key components such as silicon optical amplifiers, detectors, modulators and laser emitters. The researchers note that silicon-based lasers are a key research topic.

Other research focuses on reducing the size of silicon waveguides to develop "rib" and "strip" waveguides required for emerging data transmission applications.

As bandwidth demand grows in enterprise datacenters, the silicon photonics study forecasts a shift to vertical integration as a means of driving manufacturing. Hence, a wave of acquisition is expected as new photonics manufacturing techniques emerge. Meanwhile, the study predicts, optoelectronics product development is "expected to be the major area to witness high level of research activities."

As photonics research gains momentum, the reports notes several chip manufacturing gains in related fields such as quantum computing. In October, for instance, Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC) delivered a 17-qubit chip for quantum computing to its Dutch research partner QuTech.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 25 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as Executive Editor for Electronic Engineering Times.

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