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Europe-wide project reports silicon photonics successes

07 Jul 2015

Three-year ESSenTIAL program has taken technology to industry, developed new products, and trained hundreds in Si-Photonics techniques.

Nanotechnology and photonics research centre Imec, Leuven, Belgium, and several partners have successfully completed a three-year program (2012-2015) to develop and promote silicon photonics technologies by making them more accessible to industry and academia worldwide.

Within the ESSenTIAL program funded by the European Commission, Imec has worked with CEA-LETI (France), Tyndall Institute (Ireland), VTT (Finland), IHP (Germany), TNO (The Netherlands) and CMC (Canada) to develop advanced multi-project-wafer services as well as packaging services for silicon photonics.

The ESSenTIAL program review concludes, “Silicon photonics is now a key enabling technology for a wide range of markets, from optical interconnect networks in data centers to disposable biosensor chips for immunoassays. Silicon photonics builds on the technology portfolio and economy of scale of CMOS fabs to manufacture sophisticated photonic integrated circuits with a combination of passive devices – in particular wavelength and polarisation selective devices – and active devices such as optical modulators and detectors.”

Over its three years, the ESSenTIAL program has extensively expanded the services of ePIXfab, an alliance of European bodies set up in 2006 to support the emergence of a fabless silicon photonics ecosystem. ePIXfab has provided affordable Multi-Project Wafer services to fabless R&D teams worldwide developing photonic circuits.

”ePIXfab was founded to provide the silicon photonics research community an access path to advanced CMOS technology with the goal of sharing cost and expertise. ePIXfab has helped to accelerate the field of silicon photonics and to let it move from a research field to a field of critical industrial importance,” commented Ghent University professor Roel Baets, a founder of ePIXfab and research team leader associated with imec.

Notable achievements

Within the ESSenTIAL project, the portfolio of silicon photonics services offered by ePIXfab has been extended in many ways. High-speed active devices (up to 25 Gbit/s) were added to the MPW offering. Furthermore, ePIXfab has started to organize extra MPW runs on two silicon photonics technology platforms with special unique features, at IHP and at VTT.

More than 200 silicon photonics circuit designs were prototyped at imec, LETI, IHP or VTT, including close to 50 designs from companies. Another major achievement of the project was the creation of silicon photonics packaging services at Tyndall Institute, Cork, Ireland.

”Packaging is often seen as the Achilles heel of photonic component technology. Tyndall Institute has developed a family of solutions, encompassing optical, electrical and RF packaging. These standardized packaging approaches for silicon photonic chips are available to industry through the ePIXfab-alliance”, said Peter O’Brien, Head of the Photonics Packaging Group at Tyndall.


Given the shortage of skilled engineers in silicon photonics, especially at the design level, ESSenTIAL has also spent considerable resources on training activities. Over 110 experts were trained in regular six-monthly training events through the three year project, and several hundred more were reached through webinars. ESSenTIAL has also conducted 80 feasibility studies with European SMEs, which resulted in at least 22 new projects and over 30 project proposals.

During ESSenTIAL the MPW operation for silicon photonics has been integrated into Europractice IC service, marking a milestone for the further growth of Europe’s silicon photonics. Carl Das, Chairman of the Europractice service, commented, “Through the Europractice service, more than 650 European academia and 300 companies world-wide have now access to silicon photonics technologies.”

While the MPW-services for silicon photonics are open to any company, research institute or university, there are financially-attractive options for European small and medium-sized companies to develop a silicon photonics prototype in the context of their product innovation. This is possible through the EU-funded project ACTPHAST.

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