Silicon photonics reaches prime time

An article written by Sally Ward-Foxton for EETIMES – Silicon photonics has always been an attractive idea. Because silicon is transparent to photons at the infrared wavelengths used in optical communications, why not integrate optical components onto a silicon chip? Silicon-on-insulator processes can be used to form waveguides, modulators, and other optical structures in silicon and take advantage of CMOS’s low cost and scalability.

After decades of research and development, silicon photonics products have moved to market and into real-world applications in the past couple of years. The technology is particularly attractive in the data center, where intra-center links of hundreds of meters are required as hyperscale facilities come online. The best solution for these is optical fiber. Currently, pluggable transceiver modules are used, but there are cost-, space-, and power-saving advantages to integrating transceivers into the same package as the electronics.

Traditional optical components often require hand assembly of hermetically sealed, discretely packaged components. Integrating some of these optical components onto silicon can leverage the cost benefits and ease of assembly of electronics packaging. Additionally, silicon photonics can enable the capacity increases that hyperscale data centers demand.

Many operators began installing optical fiber in mobile fronthaul (particularly in the links between the antenna on the mast and the baseband unit) during the 4G buildout to accelerate installations. The advent of 5G, and the speed and bandwidth increases it requires, creates another opportunity for silicon photonics.

Yole Développement estimates the 2018 global market for silicon photonics at US$500 million and predicts growth to US$3.5 billion by 2025. The numbers include potential applications, including data centers, 5G, LiDAR, and biosensors.

Eric Mounier - Yole Développement

“It is still a very concentrated market, dominated by Intel and recent Cisco acquisition Luxtera, “though a lot of startups have been created,” said Eric Mounier, fellow analyst in photonics, sensing, and display at Yole. “The total funding amount for silicon photonics is probably close to US$1 billion. This is because it holds big promise to solve the bandwidth bottleneck in data centers, and it is also a great technological platform for sensor applications.” … Full article