Why are integrated photonics applied less frequently as an enabling technology than electronics or ‘standard’ optical equipment? For chip manufacturer SMART Photonics, in Eindhoven, the answer is simple: photonics is a relatively unknown technology and integrated photonics is virtually unheard of; despite the fact that the technology has so much potential. A few years ago the company began to produce integrated photonic chips with the potential for diverse applications in a wide range of industries. In high-tech industries sectors such as data and telecom, the medical sector and aviation, integrated photonics offer many advantages and new functionalities compared or in addition to existing solutions.
Semiconductor Photonics has existed as a technology for many years and is chiefly applied in the telecommunications and data-processing markets, but also has applications in the medical sector and sensoring market for amongst others precise measurement. Yet it has escaped the attention of many researchers in the high-tech sector. Often, the first place people look for solutions is in software or electronic applications, even though solutions based on light may offer an excellent alternative. At the present time, Integrated photonics can be compared with the emergence of the semiconductor industry. In both cases, no-one could imagine where we would be today: after 50 years? But like semiconductors, photonics has become a mature industry, and with the introduction of integrated photonics new inventions, business sectors, studies and maybe even disruptive products, like smartphones, may be expected.
Commercial introduction Multi Project Wafers
Taking a similar development path as the semiconductor industry, SMART Photonics provides integrated photonics using the generic technology as its basis; it brought the industry on the verge of making breakthrough developments. The technology offers huge economic potential for the Netherlands, because integrated photonics or monolithic integration is a field in which the Netherlands, and in particular TU Eindhoven, has taken the lead on the international stage.
For the past 15 years Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) has been working hard together with the Heinrich Hertz institute in Berlin and the English company Oclaro to create a technology that allows photonic components to be integrated in a generic way on a single chip. Up to then, For each chip a new process needed to be developed , tested and manufactured. SMART Photonics licensed the technology from the TU/e and was in 2013 the first to commercially introduce Multi Project Wafers (MPW) as a low threshold vehicle to bring this technology onto the commercial market.
Chips for aircraft and helicopter wings or in ships’ hulls
Two years ago the first chips that could replicate existing functionality on a single chip rolled off the first MPW run wafers. The company produced the chips for incorporation in measuring equipment, replacing the previous shoebox of free standing optical components and sensitive, not to mention expensive, materials. The first run produced a chip 18 square millimetres in size with greater functionality, able to take measurements with many times more accuracy and many times more robust than conventional measuring equipment. This chip can be incorporated in aircraft and helicopter wings or in ships’ hulls. It is non-sensitive to light, air and vibrations, while being more energy efficient and lighter than standard optical measurement equipment.
The company also produced a chip with support from the IOP programme, in partnership with Radboud University Nijmegen and TU Eindhoven, which delivered a chip for a breakthrough technology: trace gas analysis. This allows the level of e.g. methane in a person’s breath to be measured, through which the presence of diseases can be traced. The laser used for this is smaller than 10mm2. Thanks to this enormous reduction in size, a large piece of equipment, which functions in a completely different way, can now be replaced by a single chip. The technology is many times more inexpensive than the larger equipment and, in the future, could easily be incorporated into a handheld device or maybe even a smartphone for self-diagnosis.
Similar sensoring methodology can also be applied to the oil & gas industry, for example for detecting gas at the bottom of an oil well, and thus avoiding the creation of sparks, drilling can be made much safer and explosions can be avoided.
Building blocks and imagination
Thanks to the research carried out over the past 15 years, integrated photonics makes it possible to combine all the building blocks in a design kit to produce extra and new functionalities. The description of the building blocks in the design kit includes an additional abstraction level to the design. Designers do not need to know the ins- and outs of the technology, but can make a design on a functional rather than a physical level. Anyone who understands the functions of the individual building blocks and has the imagination to see new possibilities can have their ‘idea on a chip’ made by SMART Photonics. Designs for any sector, from the medical sector, sensors, data and telecoms to aerospace, can be converted into the required process steps. SMART Photonics provides the expertise, the equipment and the environment. In September 2015 the company opens its own clean room in order to offer specific solutions to clients, while ensuring stability and continuity; perhaps the most important characteristics of mass production. After three years, the first clients are now moving towards mass production. That is to say, the design is reasonably stable and the chips are now progressing from the concept or test phase towards the pre-production phase.
The next step is to approach various markets. They need to imagine applications that would make life or production simpler, faster, more intelligent, cheaper and more energy efficient. The infrastructure to produce the chips already exists; an inexpensive testing procedure is available and if the design works, the next step into mass production is relatively simple. For SMART Photonics it is no longer a question of whether revolutionary innovations can be made using integrated photonics, but when. It is possible. It only needs to be imagined.