£6m project to bring silicon photonics to mass markets

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Researchers from the University of Southampton in the UK have been awarded more than £6 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for a project to bring silicon photonics to the mass market. The Silicon Photonics for Future Systems project will address challenges in mass production of silicon photonics technology, which if successfully commercialised could revolutionise applications in computing, communications, domestic appliances and healthcare.

Silicon photonics can transmit huge amounts of data at very high speeds with extremely low power, and is one of the most rapidly growing technologies. It is poised to transform devices, circuits and systems that provide high data transmission, higher resolution TV, faster computing, and will do so at low power consumption.

However, despite significant progress, several key research challenges still need to be overcome to enable the mass production of silicon photonic technology. These challenges include developing: a low cost method of comprehensively testing at the wafer scale; a passive alignment coupling technique from fibre to optical chip; a means of scaling the functionality of the photonic circuit; very low power, high data rate modulators; and low-cost integrated lasers within silicon photonic chips.

The project aims to tackle these research challenges to enable a revolution in low-cost photonics, placing the UK at its centre. It is led by Professor Graham Reed from the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton. Reed is a pioneer of silicon photonics and is the individual who initiated the field within the UK, having established the Silicon Photonics Group at the University of Surrey in 1989.

‘Photonic communications technology, already so vital in core systems, currently stands at the threshold of the mass market,’ said Reed. ‘To make this vital transition it must exploit the mass-precision-processing technology developed for silicon microelectronics. We will place the UK at the forefront of this transition by bringing our microelectronics and photonics skills together to address several remaining key research challenges for silicon photonics.

‘The key is that the technology must follow an aggressively low cost model, which implies that an approach similar to that developed by the microelectronics industry is required for photonics. Therefore, if we are successful in tackling these challenges, the results will do nothing less than revolutionise the field.’

The programme will provide training and opportunities for a new generation of researchers and leaders in the silicon photonics field. Additionally, new start-up companies and SMEs will be able to take advantage of the enhanced capabilities and low cost provision of silicon photonics technology.

The knowledge created will be presented at the leading international Photonics and Materials Science conferences and published in the leading high-impact journals. The project team will also organise a series of public engagement activities to showcase the results, to influence policy makers and to stimulate interest within schools and the wider community.

The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and includes three UK industrial partners (Oclaro, Wentworth Laboratories and Sharp Laboratories of Europe), an international academic partner (Kaist from Korea), as well as numerous offers of support and collaboration from academic institutions within the UK.