Silicon photonics has been getting much interest lately. In simple terms, silicon photonics is building advanced optical components with silicon materials and related CMOS manufacturing technology. Datacom is by the far the most important application for silicon photonics. Other emerging applications include gas/chemical sensors, circuit-level interconnects, video connectivity devices, and automotive lidars.
Traditionally optical components have been essentially manufactured piece by piece assembling various discrete parts. While many facets of the overall process have been automated, precision alignment and packaging remain a major cost factor in the current optical component manufacturing.
Massive growth in silicon-based integrated circuit technology and performance were clearly appealing to the optics world and interest in realizing silicon-based optical products has a long history for over 20 years. However, the progress in silicon photonics has been slow because the key challenge lies in fundamentally overcoming different material basic characteristics for optical communications. There have been very few silicon photonics products shipped commercially as late as 2015. Even now as of late 2017, there are just handful companies such as Intel, Acacia, and Luxtera who are shipping commercial silicon photonics products.
As everyone knows Internet traffic explosion and hence unquenchable bandwidth thirst is a primary driving force now in communications. Silicon photonics does have the potential to deliver the same high performance optical components with a lower cost in a much smaller integrated package. Even more critical in expensive power-consuming data canter applications is silicon photonics’ ability to consume much lower power than traditional optical components. These important benefits are generating great interest and investment into silicon photonics. Much of immediate interest lies in high speed datacom transceivers in 100G and soon for 400G. Adding to existing players, there are now several new and start-up companies entering this space.
Both active and passive optical circuits are needed to realize the full potential of silicon photonics. Vitex and our partners have introduced 10/25G Ge-Si based PIN and APD devices with superior linearity suitable for advanced modulation such as PAM4. Precision fiber array is another key product which enables micro-scale connection from InP-based lasers to silicon and photonic circuits to optical fibers.
Advances in material sciences, optoelectronics integration, and hyper growth in datacom-driven market demand are all coming together to make silicon photonics a promising technology of choice for optical communications.
Michael Ko is the founder and Managing Director of Vitex LLC, a customer-focused fiber optic solution provider based in New Jersey since 2003. He has worked in the optics industry for over 15 years.