What Is ‘Silicon Photonics’? Why Intel, TSMC, NVIDIA, Apple Are Investing

2023-09-13 Semiconductors / Telecommunications editor

With the increasing demand for massive computing in fields such as AI, communication, and autonomous vehicles, the evolution of integrated circuits (ICs) has reached a physical limit under the premise of Moore’s Law. How can this limit be surpassed? The answer lies in the realm of optics. Currently, many domestic and international companies are actively embracing “Silicon Photonics” technology. When electronics meet photons, it not only addresses the signal transmission loss issue but is also considered a key technology that could usher in a new era, potentially revolutionizing the future world.

Integrated circuits (ICs) cram millions of transistors onto a single chip, performing various complex calculations. Silicon Photonics, on the other hand, represents integrated “light” paths, where light-conductive pathways are consolidated. In simple terms, it is a technology that converts “electronic signals” into “optical signals” on a silicon platform, facilitating the transmission of both electrical and optical signals.

As technology rapidly advances and computer processing speeds increase, communication between chips has become a critical factor in computing performance. For instance, when ChatGPT was first launched, there were issues with lag and interruptions during the question and answer process, which were related to data transmission problems. Therefore, as AI technology continues to evolve, maintaining computational speed is a crucial aspect of embracing the AI era.

Silicon Photonics has the potential to enhance the speed of optoelectronic transmission, addressing the signal loss and heat issues associated with copper wiring in current computer components. Consequently, semiconductor giants such as TSMC and Intel have already invested in related research and development efforts. In this context, we interviewed Dr. Fang Yen Hsiang, director of the Opto-Electronics Micro Device & System Application Division and Electronic and Optoelectronic System Research Laboratories at the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), to gain insights into this critical technology.

What Is the Relationship Between Silicon Photonics and Optical Transceivers?

An optical transceiver module comprises various components, including optical receivers, amplifiers, modulators, and more. In the past, these components were individually scattered on a PCB (printed circuit board). However, to reduce power consumption, increase data transmission speed, and minimize transmission loss and signal delay, these components have been integrated into a single silicon chip. Fang emphasizes that this integration is the core of Silicon Photonics.

Integrated Circuits’ Next Step: The Three Stages of Silicon Photonics

  • Silicon Photonics Stage 1: Upgrading from Traditional Pluggable Modules

Silicon Photonics has been quietly developing for over 20 years. The traditional Silicon Photonics pluggable optical transceiver modules look very much like USB interfaces and connect to two optical fibers—one for incoming and one for outgoing light. However, the electrical transmission path in pluggable modules had a long distance before reaching the switch inside the server. This resulted in significant signal loss at high speeds. To minimize this loss, Silicon Photonics components have been moved closer to the server’s switch, shortening the electrical transmission path. Consequently, the original pluggable modules now only contain optical fibers.

This approach aligns with the actively developing “Co-Packaged Optics” (CPO) technology in the industry. The main idea is to assemble electronic integrated circuits (EIC) and photonic integrated circuits (PIC) onto the same substrate, creating a co-packaged board that integrates chips and modules. This co-packaging, known as CPO light engines (depicted in figure “d” below), replaces optical transceivers and brings optical engines closer to CPU/GPU chips (depicted in figure “d” as chips). This reduces transmission paths, minimizes transmission loss, and reduces signal delay.

According to ITRI, this technology reduces costs, increases data transmission by over 8 times, provides more than 30 times the computing power, and saves 50% in power consumption. However, the integration of chipsets is still a work in progress, and refining CPO technology will be the next important step in the development of Silicon Photonics.

  • Solving the CPO Bottleneck and Beyond – Silicon Photonics Stage 2: Addressing CPU/GPU Transmission Issues

Currently, Silicon Photonics primarily addresses the signal delay challenges of plug-in modules. As technology progresses, the next stage will involve solving the electrical signal transmission issues between CPUs and GPUs. Academics point out that chip-to-chip communication is primarily based on electrical signals. Therefore, the next step is to enable internal chip-to-chip communication between GPUs and CPUs using optical waveguides, converting all electrical signals into optical signals to accelerate AI computations and address the current computational bottleneck.

  • Silicon Photonics Ultimate Stage 3: The Arrival of the All-Optical Network (AON) Era

As technology advances even further, we will usher in the era of the “All-Optical Network” (AON). This means that all chip-to-chip communication will rely on optical signals, including random storage, transmission, switching, and processing, all of which will be transmitted as optical signals. Japan has already been actively implementing Silicon Photonics in preparation for the full transition to all-optical networks in this context.

Where Does Silicon Photonics Currently Face Technological Challenges?

Currently, Silicon Photonics faces several challenges related to component integration. First and foremost is the issue of communication. Dr. Fang Yen Hsiang provides an example: semiconductor manufacturers understand electronic processes, but because the performance of photonic components is sensitive to factors such as temperature and path length, and because linewidth and spacing have a significant impact on optical signal transmission, a communication platform is needed. This platform would provide design specifications, materials, parameters, and other information to facilitate communication between electronic and photonic manufacturers.

Furthermore, Silicon Photonics is currently being applied in niche markets, and various packaging processes and material standards are still being established. Most of the wafer foundries that provide Silicon Photonics chip fabrication belong to the realm of customized services and may not be suitable for use by other customers. The lack of a unified platform could hinder the development of Silicon Photonics technology.

In addition to the lack of a common platform, high manufacturing costs, integrated light sources, component performance, material compatibility, thermal effects, and reliability are also challenges in Silicon Photonics manufacturing processes. With ongoing technological progress and innovation, it is expected that these bottlenecks will be overcome in the coming years to a decade.

This article is from TechNews, a collaborative media partner of TrendForce.

(Photo credit: Google)