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Low cost silicon chip research manipulates photons instead of electrons

A photonic circuit next to a penny. (Photo credit: University of Washington)

A new initiative that aims to make it easier and cheaper to manufacture silicon chips that combine light and electronics, has been announced by the University of Washington. Co-funded by Intel, a new centre is being established to enable the next generation of computer chips. According to UW, the programme will provide access to high end semiconductor manufacturing, enabling users to build integrated electronic-photonic circuits in silicon.

Optoelectronics Systems Integration in Silicon (OpSIS) will offer a service to help combine different circuits onto a single silicon wafer.

Matt O'Donnell, dean of the UW College of Engineering, said: "More than 15 years ago, we had a collaboration that allowed my group to design custom integrated circuits that would have been totally impossible for us to do from scratch. It's now clear that silicon photonics is becoming an integral part of the electronics world, and so it's critical to have that type of capability."

The OpSIS project will permit 'shuttle runs' in which researchers cut costs by sharing silicon wafers between multiple projects. A single circuit design might use only a few square millimetres. According Michael Hochberg, a UW assistant professor of electrical engineering, enabling shuttle runs can reduce costs by more than 100 times.

In developing the rules and protocols, Hochberg aims to create a system so that even non-specialists can begin to design and build functioning chips that integrate photonics and electronics.

The emerging field of photonics uses photons, or light, rather than electrons to carry information. Using photons provides a faster, lower-power means for moving data around; a single optical fiber or waveguide can carry many terabits per second of data, tens of thousands of times more than a copper cable does today. Using silicon as the base for the technology eases integration with existing devices and builds on the mature silicon chip manufacturing industry.

Combining photonics and electronics promises to improve radar and sensing technology, and the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research funds Hochberg's UW research. There are also a number of emerging applications for silicon photonics: In the future, Hochberg said, chips that combine electronics and photonics could allow for biological sensors that can test hundreds of blood samples on a single inexpensive chip that combines lasers, sensors and electronics.

Rattner, chief technology officer at Intel said that OpSIS will enhance the education of US engineering students and provide an opportunity to learn a new optical design paradigm. "The ability to produce such low cost silicon chips that manipulate photons, instead of electrons, will lead to new inventions and new industries beyond just data communications, including low cost sensors, new biomedical devices and ultra fast signal processors."
OpSIS will be based at the UW's new Institute for Photonic Integration.

Chris Shaw

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