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AIM Photonics and Spark Photonics to co-develop ‘educational’ PIC chip

04 Jan 2022

Department of Defence MII partnership creates US workforce development tool to teach students about silicon photonics.

Integrated photonics has been identified by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) as “a critical technology for both national and economic security.” The DoD further notes that the development of a skilled workforce needed to make integrated photonics commercially viable “is seriously lagging.”

Unlike other established industries, few education and workforce development programs focus specifically on the integrated photonics industry in the U.S., and only a handful of those offer students the type of hands-on experience that they will face in a real-world manufacturing environment.

With a background in education and workforce development programs for AIM Photonics’ AIM Academy, Kevin McComber (with an MIT PhD in silicon photonics) knew he could tackle this problem.

As founder and CEO of Spark Photonics, an independent commercial photonic integrated circuit (PIC) design house based in Waltham, Massachusetts, McComber saw a business opportunity to develop and market an educational PIC chip.

This would gives both students and members of the integrated photonics industry supply chain a functional chip to help them learn how to use and calibrate equipment, test and work with different features and components, and better understand PIC device design.

Problematic supply chain issues, compounded with the current shortage in chip production, prompted McComber to turn to AIM Photonics to develop a more comprehensive educational and workforce development (EWD) PIC kit – to be designed, developed, manufactured and distributed entirely in the U.S.

Partnership

“As a DoD Manufacturing Innovation Institute, AIM Photonics’ job is to foster the adoption and expansion of photonics, so working with Spark Photonics to develop the EWD PIC Kit was clearly a good match for us,” said Bob Geer, AIM Photonics’ director of Education and Workforce Development.

Spark Photonics worked with AIM Photonics, and other contributors from the academic community, to develop an education-specific photonic chip that achieves the following: makes the technology more approachable for students to explore; features basic designs that support existing university curricula; and helps students determine which device designs work best for specific applications.

“Simulation tools allow you to explore the what-ifs, but this actually allows you to get into the detail of how measurement gets done,” said McComber. With the EWD PIC Kit, students can get the same type of experience they can expect in a real-world manufacturing environment, but in a more supportive infrastructure that nurtures innovative thinking, he added.

Evolution

The first generation of the EWD PIC chips that were manufactured by AIM Photonics for wide distribution were passive, which gives students a broad understanding of what happens to light as it passes through basic photonic structures on the chip. Subsequent generations have also incorporated active components, so students can see what can happen to the light when electricity is applied, such as switching, tuning and modulating.

McComber says that the next generation of the EWD PIC chips, which are currently being fabricated by AIM Photonics at the Albany Nanotech Complex, will be more application-specific and include six chiplets to allow students to more fully explore photonic devices used in datacom and telecom applications.

Spark Photonics recently delivered its first commercially available EWD PIC Kit to the Western New England University (WNE) College of Engineering Laboratory for Education and Application Prototypes (LEAP) in Springfield, Massachusetts. Steve Adamshick, Associate Professor and Director of LEAP@WNE, says there will definitely be a shift in their program as a result of the EWD PIC Kit. “This is a far more effective way of communicating critical integrated photonics concepts to students,” he said.

“Before, we relied heavily on computer simulation tools to visualize abstract concepts such as guided wave modes and how they contribute to key parameters such as waveguide loss and confinement. Now, with the EWD PIC kits, we can provide the hands-on learning experiences to demonstrate these concepts in action and, more importantly, close the loop from design to fabrication to test.”

Adamshick also noted that starting in the fall of 2022, WNE will officially include an integrated optics/photonics sequence within their electrical engineering program using learning modules from the EWD PIC kits. In addition to its educational customers, Spark Photonics has recently secured an order for an EWD PIC kit intended for industrial use from Syntec Optics, an independent custom manufacturer of polymer optics located in Rochester, NY.

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