Intel began commercializing silicon photonics in 2016, but the global market for silicon photonics in 2018 was only $450 million, barely visible in the semiconductor market landscape.
However, 2020 is the first year that the heterogeneous integration roadmap will be integrated into silicon photonics, and this timing has naturally taken into account the infrastructure expansion required when 5G deployment begins.
The OFC (Optical Fiber Communications) 2000 conference was held in San Diego, California in March, one of the very few conferences that was willing to go on as usual at a time when the epidemic was so intense.
The urgency of this technology is evident from the fact that it was one of the very few conferences that was willing to go ahead with the epidemic.
Silicon photonics currently has three major themes: reducing photon loss, increasing integration, and the application of quantum information science.
Photon propagation in a silicon waveguide can easily cause photon loss due to side-wall roughness.
A recent discovery is the addition of a layer of transition metal dichalcogenides (TMD), such as tungsten disulfide (WS2), to the waveguide of silicon nitride (SiN), which can significantly reduce photon loss, especially for infrared frequencies.
This discovery is no coincidence, as TMD is a two-dimensional material that has been used as a channel material in transistors for low power consumption and high electron mobility in advanced semiconductor manufacturing processes. This is the headline in the current issue of Nature Photonics.
Increasing the level of integration is a key step in bringing products to market.
The optical transceiver accounts for 60% of the cost of the entire network, more than the combined cost of the switch, network interface controller (NIC), fiber, etc.
It also accounts for about 10-15% of the budget in the entire data center. The integration of optical and electrical components by heterogeneous integration and silicon photonics can effectively reduce cost and power consumption, improve performance, and make the system scalable.
The first heterogeneous integration is the co-packaging of optical components and ethernet switch IC SerDes (Serializer/Deserializer), which is the key technology for the current product expansion in the market.
Silicon photonics has made great progress in the wafer manufacturing process, especially the light source Indium Phosphide (InP) laser can now be manufactured directly on the silicon crystal.
The indium phosphide particles are first transferred, adhered to the silicon crystal and activated by plasma activation, and then the indium phosphide liner is etched away, leaving only the activated epitaxial layer. In this way, light sources, optical modules, and electronic circuits can be fabricated on the same wafer.
Photon is also an important technology in quantum information science. It is the only technology in quantum communication, and one of the most possible quantum bit technologies in quantum computing, along with superconductors and ion traps.
When the number of quantum bits increases, a feasible technique is to first form a chiplet with tens or hundreds of quantum bits, and then build a large number of quantum bits by heterogeneous integration of each chiplet.
In such an architecture, even if the photon is not a quantum bit, the entanglement between the quantum bitlets must be taken care of by the photon.
Many technologies of silicon photonics, such as the aforementioned low photon loss waveguide, can be shared in quantum communication and quantum computing.
There is a rapidly emerging business opportunity and a broader vision for the future, and this is how silicon photonics is starting to look right now!
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