What is integrated photonics?

Use of light

Virtually everyone uses photonics. The most well-known example is fiber-optic cable that transmits data using light rather than electronic signals. That is the distinctive feature of photonics: the use of light, especially to process or transmit data but also for other applications such as for sensing.

At the Institute for Photonic Integration ‘integrated photonics’ is key: microchips that are based on light signals and built into devices. In the future photonic chips will be incorporated in lots of devices, in our homes, in our cars and in mobile equipment. 

Until very recently, integrated circuits (microchips) were exclusively electronic chips that work using electrical signals, which comprise of electrons. By contrast, in integrated photonic circuits photons are used instead of electrons, hence the name photonics. Compared to electrons, photons are extremely light-weight, which opens up opportunities to process transport much more information with much less energy.

Huge promise

Photonic chips are microchips that are able to perform all kinds of operations on the basis of light. For example, a chip that is able to use the change in the light signal reflected in an optical fiber, incorporated in an aircraft wing, to very precisely calculate the degree of tension at every point on the wing. The chip warns very precisely where extra attention is needed long before any cracks appear.

The development of photonics requires a lot of scientific research because it is no easy matter to manipulate light at nano level such that we can perform all kinds of useful operations. Scientists are constantly pushing the limits to make photonics possible because there is huge promise in photonics.

In the current datacenters micro-electronics is a seriously limiting factor in the development of data speed in the countless connections, which leads to increased power consumption. By contrast, photonic chips can reach much higher speeds than is currently possible using electronic systems. Photonic chips will replace micro-electronic chips to some extent but certainly not entirely.

Photonic chips, and the systems that can be built with them, are also much more energy-efficient than their micro-electronic predecessors, which means that devices can work longer on their batteries and datacenters can save a significant power savings.

Furthermore, photonics is suitable for measuring all kinds of properties of materials and fibers, which makes it possible to develop new applications in a range of domains like diagnostics in healthcare, the processing industry, safety and security, mobility and agro-food.

The ongoing development of integrated photonics is also expected to generate all kinds of new applications in many new domains.

Many billions

The long-term prospects for the integrated photonics market, and the market for products based on this technology, are expected to be worth hundreds of billions of euros. The European Union has made photonics one of its five ‘Key Enabling Technologies’ (http://ec.europa.eu/growth/industry/key-enabling-technologies/index_en.htm), technologies with the biggest economic potential and the most significance in terms of societal challenges.

Photonic chips are still expensive for the moment because the technology is still in its infancy in terms of applications. In data networks they are, therefore, only used in crucial central sites, where micro-electronics already come up short. However, development costs and production prices are expected to fall sharply when photonic chips are applied more and more, which means that the advantages of photonic chips will also begin to take root in other applications.