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X-FAB leads €48M silicon photonics effort

14 Jun 2023

European chip foundry sees 'huge potential' in commercialization project also featuring Nokia, Nvidia, and imec.

X-FAB, a silicon chip foundry that specializes in analog and mixed-signal devices for automotive and other industrial markets, has been selected to lead a €48 million project to commercialize silicon photonics technology.

Funded by the European Union’s “Key Digital Technologies Joint Undertaking” effort and the project participants, the “photonixFAB” effort also features some big names from the semiconductor industry, in the form of Nvidia, Nokia, and Belgian innovation hub imec.

Together with other laboratory groups and smaller enterprises, the aim of the project is to establish a European value chain and initial industrial manufacturing capabilities for silicon photonics devices, and create a path to high-volume production.

Belgium's Luceda Photonics will provide design software, with Netherlands-based Smart Photonics responsible for active material "chiplets" based on compound semiconductors.

“The photonixFAB project aims to empower photonics innovation by SMEs and large entities by providing low-barrier access to both low-loss silicon nitride (SiN) and silicon-on-insulator (SOI) based photonics platforms with indium phosphide (InP) and lithium niobate (LNO) heterogenous integration capabilities,” X-FAB announced.

The firm added that the effort is part of a wider strategic initiative aiming to establish greater technological sovereignty for the European semiconductor and photonics industries.

Six demonstrators
Specific aims of photonixFAB include the provision of industrial-scale silicon photonics manufacturing services with low barriers to entry and fast turnaround times for photonic integrated circuits (PICs) based on both low-loss SiN and SOI approaches.

The project’s remit also includes enabling microtransfer printing and direct bonding technologies so that active and passive photonic components fabricated from InP, LNO, and germanium can be integrated within PICs.

Other goals are to develop scalable packaging and testing solutions, and relevant process design kits (PDKs) for the various photonic platforms. That should result in six demonstrator technologies to validate the implemented photonics value chains.

These include well-established applications like datacom, optical switches, and a coherent optical transceiver, as well as an infrared spectrometer for sensing, a digital olfaction sensor for consumer healthcare, and another health monitoring demonstrator.

“A multitude of prospective opportunities for the cutting-edge photonic devices fabricated via the photonixFAB project have already been identified,” X-FAB said. “Among them are data communication, telecoms, biomedical sensors/detectors, quantum computing, and vehicle lidar.”

The foundry, which has enjoyed particular success in the automotive sector as it transitions to electric vehicles, adds that most of the project work will take place at its fabrication facility in Corbeil-Essonnes, just south of Paris.

Its CEO, Rudi De Winter, said in a company release: “Seeing huge potential emerging there, traditional semiconductor vendors, OEMs and startups are all now exploring photonic-enabled applications.

“Consequently, this is the right time for companies to work together on building an extensive Europe-centric silicon photonics ecosystem that will help drive the continent’s competitiveness in this exciting new market.”

Datacoms to digital noses
Although the vast majority of X-FAB’s business comes from the automotive and medical sectors, it is not the company’s first foray into photonics.

It recently worked with multispectral imaging firm Spectricity to enable low-cost manufacturing of spectral image sensors for use in mobile devices.

“Spectricity’s patented spectral sensor solution is based on the integration of small, pixelated spectral filters onto CMOS image sensors in the visible and near-infrared spectral range,” explained X-FAB last year.

“Inclusion of 16 or more high-quality narrowband channels is possible. Through its deployment, X-FAB is the only foundry enabling volume CMOS production of such small spectral pixels, making it and Spectricity well positioned to meet the demands of the mobile handset OEMs.”

The photonixFAB effort promises to have a much wider impact across numerous applications of silicon photonics, with Netherlands-based industrial sensor company PhotonFirst, Lithuania’s Brolis Sensor Technology, and “digital nose” developer Aryballe also involved as applications providers.

Based in Grenoble, France, Aryballe uses silicon photonics in its “NeOse Advance” product, which detects smells through an array of Mach-Zehnder interferometers.

Hyperion OpticsMad City Labs, Inc.LASEROPTIK GmbHTRIOPTICS GmbHSPECTROGON ABAlluxaCeNing Optics Co Ltd
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