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Silicon photonics showcase reports dramatic advances in industry compatible technology

Published: 12 January 2021
Silicon photonics advances could vastly expand the current limits of data centres.

World-leading experts highlighted the dramatic progress made in silicon photonics technology at a research showcase event hosted by the Zepler Institute for Photonics and Nanoelectronics.

The Silicon Photonics for Future Systems (SPFS) Showcase reported advances that will both enhance conventional silicon photonics applications, but also transform new application areas such as programmable photonics and video production in mainstream media.

The ambitious £6m programme, led by Southampton's Professor Graham Reed, has successfully overcome some of the key remaining research challenges, and in doing so facilitated a revolution in low cost photonics.

The programme was guided by an eminent Steering Committee comprising world-leading silicon photonics experts Professor Roel Baets (Ghent University and IMEC), Professor Lionel Kimerling (MIT), Dr Haisheng Rong (Intel), and media expert Chris Chambers (formerly of the BBC).

The SPFS programme has been led by Southampton's Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Highlights from last month's showcase event included a demonstration of very high data rate transmission, wafer scale testing technology, multilayer photonic circuits, and lasers integrated on silicon chips.

Professor Reed, SPFS Principal Investigator and Deputy Director of the ORC, says: "I'm delighted that our technology has been so well received, both by the delegates of the Showcase event, but also by the technical press all around the world. Our demonstration of a 100Gb/s integrated modulator-driver combination has almost doubled the previous world record performance in all silicon devices, and so it's not surprising that there has been publicity surrounding this work, and I think this work can really impact the way data centre communications are configured.

"However, the work on wafer scale testing, and multilayer photonics is also ground-breaking, and of course it's nice that it isn't just me saying that. When a steering committee as eminent as this is so complimentary about our work, then we must have done something exceptional. I'm very grateful for their extremely positive comments."

The SPFS showcase, sponsored by Physik Instrumente, centred around technology demonstrations, but also included guest presentations from the SPFS Steering Committee, and from Intel on commercialising silicon photonics.

SPFS Steering Committee member Professor Lionel Kimerling, Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, is co-chair of the international Integrated Photonic Systems roadmap.

"There has been a lot of impressive innovation and discovery during this programme and I'm amazed how it has met many of our roadmap challenges," he said. "3D integration will be the only way to add complexity and scale performance over time, and the project has tackled that as one of its key demonstrators with great success.

"In particular, the demonstration of the 100Gb/s modulator is a significant achievement. Its creation reveals there is plenty of room beyond what was targeted in the roadmap and is something that we will be building on moving forward.

"In the future, I see the UK continuing to lead in the advancement of photonics and integration, and the connections with industry are going to be very important."

Former BBC Principal Research Engineer Chris Chambers said the programme's work could greatly enhance many present and potential products for the media industry.

"Video production is trying to achieve the highest data rate possible at the front end so that, following compression and further processing, the quality isn't degraded on downstream platforms during delivery," he explained. "These highest data rates can be tricky, power hungry and expensive to manipulate within the production chain with limited range on a copper-based system.

"I can see that the board-level photonics touched upon in this project will enable future systems where the highest-possible video quality can be transferred straight from the camera through mixers, switches and processers, minimising expensive and power-hungry electronics.

"This amazing work to route and process photonic streams will boost production workflows for media companies and is highly applicable to other industries as well."

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