An Overview of the Evolution of Silicon Photonics

Silicon photonics is a technology that uses silicon as an optical medium to create photonic systems. The technology has been in development since the late 1980s and early 1990s, proceeding through a series of stops and starts to the prominent position it now enjoys. As with most technological developments, the story of silicon photonics is one of slow but steady progress, buttressed by developments in other areas that made it possible to overcome technical obstacles. Here, we trace that history, from the 1980s to the present day.

The birth of silicon photonics: from breakthrough to stalemate

Silicon photonics first emerged as a discipline in the 1980’s when researchers realized the potential of integrating optical devices on silicon substrates, leveraging the well-established silicon microelectronics industry. The work of Soref and Lorenzo demonstrated that silicon photonics could enable monolithic integration of photonics and electronics.

New ground had been broken, but silicon photonics languished through much of the 1990’s, primarily due to the limitations of silicon itself. In particular, its indirect bandgap made silicon a less than ideal material for efficient photonics. This property hindered the development of efficient light emission and absorption in silicon-based devices. Researchers faced challenges in achieving low-loss waveguides and integrating key components on silicon substrates.

(image source: Yole, 2022)

Overcoming technical challenges, paving the way to commercialization

One of the key milestones in silicon photonics was the development of low-loss silicon waveguides, enabling the guiding of light at the sub-micron scale. This breakthrough, achieved in the late 1990s, opened up new possibilities for creating complex optical circuits on silicon substrates.

Over the years, researchers refined the fabrication techniques, enhancing the performance of silicon photonics devices. They developed efficient couplers, modulators, detectors, and switches, all integrated on silicon chips. These advancements made silicon photonics increasingly viable for commercial applications.

The commercialization of silicon photonics

The ensuing commercial interest in silicon photonics was at first stimulated by the readily apparent applications in telecommunications. But in the time since, demand for the technology has been driven primarily (though not exclusively) by the need for optical interconnects for data centers and high performance computing.

In 2012, Cisco Systems made the first notable acquisition in the silicon photonics domain by purchasing Lightwire, a startup specializing in advanced optical interconnects.

This acquisition was a landmark moment, highlighting the growing interest in silicon photonics for data centers and high-speed networking. It demonstrated the belief that silicon photonics could enable faster and more energy-efficient data transfer.

Further commercialization and industry adoption

Due to significant investments in silicon photonics and increased maturity of the technology, the ecosystem has significantly expanded in recent years. . The acceleration truly began around 2018, with Cisco, Huawei and others seeing a marked increase in sales of silicon photonics based transceivers. According to LightCounting, silicon photonics based modules accounted for roughly 24% of the market in 2022 (around $3 billion).

The number of commercial fabs has increased dramatically in recent years, in order to meet the demand generated by a wide range of applications including data communication, telecoms, biomedical sensors, quantum computing and vehicle lidar.

The figure on the right, provided courtesy of Yole, shows over a dozen commercial fabs that provide silicon photonics services today.

All of this points to the ongoing relevance of silicon photonics to a wide range of industries, with strong collaboration between industry leaders and research organizations instrumental in finding new ways to overcome its limitations.

DustPhotonics: end-to-end silicon photonics solutions

Silicon photonics has come a long way since its inception, altering the landscape of data communications and paving the way for innovative applications. The integration of photonics and silicon microelectronics has enabled faster, more energy-efficient, and cost-effective solutions.

Since 2017, DustPhotonics has provided a comprehensive technology platform for silicon photonics, enabling high data rates, lower power, lower cost and high-volume scalability. Contact us to learn about our vision for the future of silicon photonics.

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Ronnen Lovinger

CEO & Board Member

Python Automation Engineer­

Modiin, Israel