Integrated Photonics for Data and Telecom

As the world becomes increasingly connected via the Internet, the demand for data continues to rise. Alongside increased usage, the digital population also continues to grow, with current estimates close to 5 billion users worldwide. So how will the data and telecom industry meet this exponential growth in demand?

The challenges for data and telecom

Right now, there are two key challenges for the data and telecom industry: a shortage of chips and the potential for data demand to outstrip supply. In fact, some forecasts suggest that by 2024 we will add as much data as the whole world was using in 2018. To put that into context, it’s expected that by 2025 there will be over 30 billion connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices in the world, compared with around 14 billion in 2021. If faster, more reliable networks are not soon developed, the energy consumption of data centres and communication will create a bottleneck.

With the demand for mobile network connectivity steadily increasing, the networks themselves must also grow accordingly, in an energy efficient way, in order to meet demand. This rise in mobile data usage points towards reciprocal growth in base stations and cell towers for 5G. But how can we accelerate network growth and save energy at the same time? Put simply, in order to mitigate the anticipated growth in data demand, we need 10 times more energy efficiency in existing data centres and for mobile technologies, approximately 20 times more energy efficiency.

With transistor scaling trends coming to an end, the world needs new ways to solve the problem. That’s where integrated photonics comes in.

What is integrated photonics?

Photonic Integrated Circuits (PICs) combine two or more photonic functions into a single chip to create new, faster, and more energy efficient devices. Leveraging the power of light, PICs are highly effective at processing and transmitting data – sensing with the highest level of precision. They can also be integrated alongside traditional electronic chips.

Electronic microchip technology on its own cannot keep up with demand, and it therefore requires additional photonic functionalities. The combination of electronics and integrated photonics offers a sustainable solution to data and telecom’s challenges around energy consumption and data demand.

Production platforms

There are three platforms for producing photonic chips:

  • Indium phosphide is a commonly used wafer technology because components such as  lasers, amplifiers, and detectors can be made from it.
  • Silicon photonics can be made in existing semiconductor foundries. Offering only passive functions, it has the same quality and control performance as a standard semiconductor fabrication.
  • Silicon nitride uses a special process to make very low loss waveguides, so it can be used in things like quantum photonics.

Applications in data and telecom

The advantage of incorporating integrated photonics technology into data and telecom is that it offers significantly faster data transfer rates and reduces the amount of energy used.

  • Dense Wavelength Divided Multiplexing (DWDM) leverages different wavelengths – different colours of light – to modulate a data stream on each light stream, so more data can travel along the fibre optic line.
  • Co-Packaged Optics (CPO) help reduce energy usage in data centres. To accomplish this, the fibre is moved as close as possible to the switching chip, which is connected to a photonic chip.
  • Free Space Optics (FSO) uses a laser beam to connect two places. Current iterations are in development, which can reach 10 gigabits per second over a distance of 5 kilometres. This can help connect parts of the world where it’s difficult to lay fibre.

Taking advantage of the diminutive dimensions of recent digital signal processing (DSP) chips, it’s possible to produce smaller, lower power, and more affordable solutions. By integrating photonics, it’s possible to combine several components into one Photonic Integrated Circuit (PIC) and one DSP.

This technology allows things like 4G transceivers – which are unsightly and large – to be reduced to a size, small enough to fit inside a lamppost. It can also open the door to smart antennas – multi-faceted devices which can send multiple beams to multiple places at the same time.

Photonics provides a way for telecom companies to serve steadily growing numbers of customers, whilst providing a sustainable solution to the increased demand for processing power.

Next steps for photonic chips in data and telecom

So what’s next for integrated photonics for data and telecom? Over the coming decade, it’s clear that integrated photonics will become a driving force in data communication from cell towers to switches. It will also play an indispensable part in more efficient solutions within the data centre. But its potential in data and telecom runs much deeper.

Quantum computing is an important, disruptive technology which has the power to revolutionize cybersecurity. Although its large-scale commercial deployment is still at least a decade away, prototypes and niche market products are currently in production, made possible by integrated photonics.

PhotonDelta partners in data and telecom:

  • Pilot Photonics produces integrated lasers and optical frequency combs, addressing problems in the optical access, optical transport and space metrology markets.
  • EFFECT Photonics is a highly vertically integrated, independent optical systems company addressing the need for high-performance, affordable optic solutions driven by the ever-increasing demand for bandwidth and faster data transfer capabilities.
  • QuiX Quantum develops quantum photonic processors. It aims to disrupt quantum computing with scalable, plug-and-play integrated photonic solutions.

Interested to learn more about the possibilities of photonic chips for data and telecom? Download PhotonDelta’s comprehensive roadmap Integrated Photonics for Data & Telecom below.