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A Global Internet Ecosystem – Powered By Hybrid PICs


The state of the fiber-optics telecommunications industry, datacenters, optical networks, and optical components such as lasers and modulators and more specifically PICs will carry us through the next few decades of photonics transformation and evolution of the internet at light speed powered by PICs. By Michael Lebby, CEO of Lightwave Logic

The last two years has been transformational for many of us: we've figured how to work at home, remotely, taught our children similarly, and some of us have even prevented our pets from photobombing our image on a video platform! We've learnt how to order food and household supplies from our computer, and we have connected with our families. There are many other things we have learnt, but for a second, just imagine if the internet was not available? Life and working remotely would be much more difficult.

The internet is now considered a utility that provides us with many things that make up a richness in our lives. The obvious things it provides is data that can bring email, video calling, shopping, and be able to pay bills. The less obvious things the internet can do includes things like health, education, and more innovative ways to collaborate and socialize. While the internet is not a perfect replacement for face-to-face interaction, it does provide a universal vehicle that is global and is a continually growing infrastructure. In fact, it is more than that: it's a global internet ecosystem.

As the pandemic has raged through many countries world-wide, it has been the internet that has delivered telemedicine, medical equipment, children's classes, business meetings, and Friday afternoon social drinking parties. We can see the important aspects of the internet, but what is it, and how does it work?

As the PIC Magazine reader well knows, the internet is based in fiber-optic telecommunications technology where the infrastructure is globally interconnected using fiber-optic cables. These cables are made from glass, and the glass is so pure that lasers that generate light can send light hundreds of km across oceans and countries. Some of the communications are wireless in space, some use under-sea cables, and others use wireless with things like 5G for more local cellular environments.

The common denominator for the global internet ecosystem is being able to evolve our growing fiber-optic communications infrastructure to more advanced and seamless design. Remember the days when we had to use a modem dial up for the internet, or if we had a mobile cellphone in the 1990s all we could do is use audio or text using pagers. Today, we can access the internet from any number of consumer portable products, and be able to work, play, shop and pay bills from almost anywhere.

How does the internet ecosystem evolve? Simply put, more advanced technology solutions must be designed, implemented, and run. The domain for lasers sending light, and photodetectors receiving light is called, of course, photonics. As photonics technology advances, we can send the light faster, consumer less power, and communicate more efficiently.

We have seen over the past 4-5 decades that photonics in general has enabled many things and it has become part of our lifestyle. We've seen this with fiber-optics as it is one of several basic technologies that are the foundation of the internet (like plumbing and electricity in buildings). Photonics in general has enabled a broad portfolio of things that improve our quality of life such as: displays, LED lighting, laser-based manufacturing, image sensors as cameras, solar cells, and with a little more brainstorming, the list continues extensively.

We also know that photonics will be integrated just like Integrated Circuits (IC) over 50 years ago. Integrated from an electronics IC standpoint is putting many transistors onto a semiconductor chip. Today, there are many billions of transistors in the advanced chips that are designed in silicon. In photonics, similar trends apply, although photonic devices are typically bigger than transistors, the expectation is that integrated photonics (typically referred to as Photonic Integrated Circuits - PICs) will become the engine for new designs that will positively impact our lifestyle. As part of this lifestyle, PICs will enable new products, and those products will be over and above the current major incumbent business for PICs today - fiber optic communications for the internet. Future PICs will be key to quantum communications and quantum computing, and things that are becoming important in today's world: security and quantum cryptography. These PICs will contain many technologies so that their performance will be enhanced. Folks in the industry term this ‘hybrid PICs'.

The figure above shows how different materials can be added to existing PIC platforms to increase performance and functionality. Today, we see InP lasers added to silicon photonics, and silicon electronics (DSP, ASIC ICs) added to InP PICs. The evolution of hybrid PICs means that new materials platforms such as polymers, dielectrics etc., will be added to PICs as the application space grows over and above fiber optic communications.

Fiber optic communications has been driven essentially through the delivery of high-speed data in fiber optic cables for the telecommunications, datacenter, data communications, and high-speed computing industries. As we use the internet more frequently, we have derived the term ‘heavy data' where we utilize more and more data to communicate, especially in and around datacenters. These basic technologies have nurtured the optical networking platforms of social medial companies such as Google and Facebook. We have traveled a long way since the days of the early, even clunky internet browsers.

The markets for fiber optic communications that includes the sub-segments that deal with ‘heavy data' over the next decade can be estimated to be over $500B growing toward $1T by the end of this decade. The major engine for products in these markets is the PIC engine that is a critical part of a transceiver - an optical device that sends and receives optical data quickly and efficiently and contains not only lasers to generate the light, but high-speed modulators to switch the light. If modulators can be designed to be faster, then the signals over the fiber-optic cables can be sent quicker, and this means we can send more data - thereby aligning with the term ‘heavy data'.

Today, we see many of these optical components being semiconductor based with integrated photonics platforms such as silicon photonics, indium phosphide etc. A transformation is happening with advanced materials that will help save the semiconductors by boosting performance and lowering power consumption. This family of materials are polymers, in fact electro-optic polymers that in a modulator device structure naturally switch light very fast, and with very low voltage, and this leads to low power consumption.

This is an exciting transformation, and in part is like what polymers have done for TVs and display panels/monitors with organic light emitting diodes (or more popularly known as OLEDs ).