£6m funding announced for development of optical chips

Research into the next generation of low-cost circuit boards that transfer data using light rather than electrical signals has received a £6m boost.

The project, led by the University of Southampton, will look for a way to cheaply mass-produce so-called silicon photonic chips that can process large amounts of data at high speeds using very little power.

This research – the computing equivalent of moving from copper wires to optical fibres for telecommunication – could help push silicon photonics into mainstream electronic devices from computers to televisions to digital healthcare systems.

‘Photonic communications technology, already so vital in core systems, currently stands at the threshold of the mass market,’ said project leader Professor Graham Reed from Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC).

‘The key is that the technology must follow an aggressively low-cost model, which implies that an approach similar to that developed by the microelectronics industry is required for photonics.’

The research will aim to tackle several challenges including development of: comprehensive, low-cost testing systems; a way to align optical chips with optical fibres; a way to scale the functionality of photonic circuits; very low-power, high data rate modulators; and low-cost integrated lasers within the chips.

The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and includes three UK industrial partners (Oclaro, Wentworth Laboratories and Sharp Laboratories of Europe), an international academic partner (KAIST from Korea), and the possibility of further collaboration with UK universities.