Photonics a solution for the growing challenge for datacentres, bandwith

The public is making increasing demands on the Internet and data centres to drive their intelligent devices, like smartphones, tablets, or wearable technologies. They assume bandwidth is unlimited, expect speeds to multiply and prices to plummet.”

Sales of smartphones have grown exponentially with sales in 2014 (from all manufacturers combined) exceeding 1.2 billion units.

“Most handset users want to be able to access and share video and photos with others. At the same time, street navigation and voice-activated apps are rising in popularity.”

As a result, the European data centre services market is expected to grow by 16% up to 2018, thanks to the growth of these rich-content applications. Bandwidth demands are also under pressure as enterprise cloud computing takes off, together with machine-to-machine connectivity – which forms the basis of the Internet of Things. The UK, Germany, France and Benelux will be the largest datacentre markets in the region.

“All this means that data traffic through cell-towers and between datacentres across the globe is set to rise by 10 times over the next four years. It’s an exponential growth in data handling which cannot be easily delivered by existing technologies. And it comes with a huge rise in energy demand to keep these servers up and running.”

Data centres are one of the fastest-growing consumers of electricity in developed countries. They are one of the key drivers in the construction of new power plants.

A recent report by the US Natural Resources Defense Council noted that U.S. data centres used 91 billion kilowatt hours of electricity when surveyed in 2013, “enough to power all of New York City’s households twice over and growing. Data centre electricity consumption is projected to increase to roughly 140 billion kilowatt hours annually by 2020, the equivalent annual output of 50 power plants. It is costing US businesses alone $13 billion annually in electricity bills and emitting nearly 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution a year.

Light brings a more efficient answer
Light is playing an increasingly important role in solving this challenge. It started in the 1980’s when engineers realised that optical fibre could carry many times more data than copper wires. And by using different wavelengths (i.e. colours) of laser light, it has become possible to feed many separate signals over the same optical fibre. This technology is known as wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM). Modern systems can handle up to 160 signals and can thus expand a basic 10 Gigabit/s system over a single fibre pair to over 1.6 Terabit/s. Not surprisingly, WDM systems are popular with telecommunications companies because they allow them to quickly expand the capacity of the network without laying more fibre.

What EFFECT Photonics has done is to take our knowledge of the science of photonics and apply it at a chip level. We’re designing and building chips that can handle huge bandwidths of data in a far more energy efficient and cost-effective way. Just as applications of electronics have expanded dramatically since the first transistor was invented in 1948, many unique applications of photonics continue to emerge.”

“We’ve built what’s called a “Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing Optical System. We’re using another substrate called Indium Phosphide instead of silicon, because you can build light sources as well as the switches and the filters all on the same one chip. You can’t generate light sources directly on silicon.”

What’s been holding you back?

The challenge for the global photonics industry has been to scale up. In micro photonics, most integration technologies have been developed and optimized for a specific application. As a result, there are almost as many technologies as applications. This huge fragmentation means that the market for many of these application-specific technologies is too small to justify scaling up into a low-cost industrial volume manufacturing process.

But a joint European programme led by the Eindhoven University of Technology has come up with a different approach.

“It costs a small fortune to design and build a micro photonics chip if you do it on your own– anything up to half a million Euros” explains Docter. “But the COBRA research institute at the Eindhoven University has developed a new process where several photonics design companies can collaborate on a single production run, bringing the costs down to around €10,000 per team. That is far more interesting to a hardware startup like us.”

“I believe we’ve reached a tipping point where photonics can really scale up, from being an exciting experiment in the lab, to a serious global business. There’s plenty of photonics expertise in Eindhoven we can tap in to. But the biggest advantage is a dedicated photonics foundry Smart Photonics, who have cleanroom facilities at Eindhoven University as well as a production facility. They gather together the various photonic design projects and make the chips in batches. This approach is unique in the world, putting us two years ahead of the US and extremely useful to have it on our doorstep.”

Mark your calendar for September 23rd
On Wednesday September 23rd there will be a one-day briefing at High Tech Campus Eindhoven dedicated to the huge business opportunities that lie ahead for Photonics.

The event will explore the journey of Photonic’s startup companies like EFFECT photonics on their journey to becoming a global company. The meeting will also showcase surprising examples of what’s just round the corner.

The conference programme is in the advanced planning stage and there is an early-bird discount. More details at

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