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Photonic integration: rewriting the rules

12 Feb 2010

EuroPIC consortium seeks to boost Europe's manufacturing capability in photonic integrated circuits

A collaborative project could fundamentally change the way that devices based on photonic integrated circuits (PICs) are designed and manufactured in Europe. Backed by €3.75m from the EU's Seventh Framework R&D programme, the EuroPIC consortium aims to facilitate easier access for small businesses to PIC components and technology.

"PICs are analogous to electronic integrated circuits, processing information signals imposed on optical wavelengths, typically in the visible spectrum or near-infrared," David Robbins of consortium member Willow Photonics, UK, told optics.org. "EuroPIC will address InP-based PICs operating at ~1550 nm. Such devices will benefit a wide range of photonics applications, including high-capacity optical telecommunications, [optical] access networks, radio-over-fibre links and sensors."

However, if PICs are to achieve greater market penetration, SMEs must first overcome the high cost of entry when it comes to R&D and manufacturing. The hope is that the design and manufacturing approach being investigated by EuroPIC will ultimately transform the economics of PICs, stimulating demand through easier access to generic InP chip fabrication processes.

"This model follows the example seen in CMOS, but is a completely new one in this sector," said Robbins. "It would provide European companies and institutes with cost-effective access to the required production methods and tools, and bring particular benefits to the new Eastern European member states, where little or no investment in photonic fabrication infrastructure has taken place."

The key change in methodology is to clearly separate out the different functions within the process chain, removing the need for a deep knowledge of the entire InP fab to be held at every stage. In effect, the fab will be application-blind.

Streamlined strategies

EuroPIC will also replace the present diversity of InP-based processes with a small number of highly characterized and standardized generic processes, according to Robbins: "The functionality of most optical circuits depends on a rather small set of components. By proper design, these components can be reduced to an even smaller set of basic building blocks, able to be integrated to realize a variety of functionalities."

Successful adoption of this new model should reduce the number of design cycles needed to realize a satisfactory commercial device, as SMEs would have access to a well characterized manufacturing process rather than simply to a clean-room facility.

"The generic foundry approach has attracted international attention," said Robbins. "The US Optoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA) is trying to interest the government and the optoelectronics industry in following the same path. Europe is in a unique position to take the lead in the field of advanced PICs and their applications by adopting this approach."

Two EuroPIC partners, Oclaro Technology in the UK and the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute in Germany, will initially establish their own generic processes, identifying the strengths of their respective methods.

"The first trials will proceed with PIC designs supplied by applications partners in the consortium and aim to test out the generic process from end-to-end for the first time," said Robbins. "A second run, starting mid-2011, will properly demonstrate the technical feasibility of the generic approach and allow EuroPIC to resolve issues which arise in the initial trials. Clearly a major change like this will not happen overnight. We are asking the questions and testing the feasibility of a radical approach."

A full list of consortium members can be found on the EuroPIC website.

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