A photonic integrated chip developed by researchers from the Institute of Telecommunications and Multimedia Applications (iTEAM) at the Universitat Politècnica de València and the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton is said to behave similarly to a microprocessor. According to the team, just like the hardware in an MPU can perform software defined operations, its chip can perform multiple functions using a single common architecture.

“By programming the internal connections of a single chip architecture, we can configure the chip to perform different functions,” said José Capmany, iTEAM researcher and coordinator of the work.

The chip’s architecture features a honeycomb waveguide mesh implemented by properly cascading tunable light couplers developed by iTEAM researcher Daniel Pérez. An independent basic coupler configuration allows flexible interconnection schemes to be defined, as well as different optical signal processing circuits.

“The main advantage of this approach is that the physical hardware architecture is manufactured independently from the targeted functionality to be performed, which reduces the price of design, fabrication and testing iterations,” said Ivana Gasulla, who is supervising Pérez’ research.

Once fully designed and tested, the chip should enable more than 100 photonic signal processing circuits to be configured. So far, the team has demonstrated around 30 configurations. “The approach represents a paradigm shift in the field of integrated photonics; from application specific photonic integrated circuits to generic purpose and programmable devices, in the same way as [electronics] in the 1980s,” said Capmany.

A range of applications is envisaged, including mobile communications, quantum computing, distributed sensors and the IoT.