Integrated Photonics May Solve Power and Speed Issues of Massive Data

November 09, 2020 by Adrian Gibbons

With data increasing 70% each year, designers are increasingly faced with power and speed bottlenecks. Researchers and startups are looking to integrated photonics as the answer.

With data increasing 70% year over year, analysts predict that in a few years, data centers may not have enough electricity to support all of the data storage and transfer. 

This is an unsustainable metric; it also underscores the increasing demand for data usage. According to the Eindhoven University of Technology, the solution to this harrowing reality is integrated photonics


Photonics Light the Way for Computing

Last year at an IEEE conference, Professor Meint K. Smit of the Eindhoven University of Technology presented a lecture about the integration of electronics and photonics


Hybrid electronic-photonic processor

Hybrid electronic-photonic processor.  Image used courtesy of the Milos Popović and University of California, Berkeley

Smit indicates that photonic technology milestones are lagging behind electron-based technologies by about twenty to thirty years. Furthermore, the number of photonic components per chip integration is expected to exceed 100,000 elements sometime after 2030, but likely never to meet the millions per chip we see with modern transistors.

The optical amplifier is analogous to the venerated transistor, and it is one of the most important building blocks for an optical system alongside the phase modulator (resistor), the polarization converter (capacitor), and the waveguide (electrical wires).


Integrated electronic and photonic components

The Eindhoven University of Technology invests significant research into integrated electronic and photonic components. Image used courtesy of TUe


Optics is a nascent industry, and according to Dr. Blavatnik Alumni Michal Lipson, it has been completely revolutionized in the past 15 years. At the New York Academy of Sciences in 2019, she talked about how optical systems overcome one of the most technologically limiting factors of electron-based technology: power consumption

Lipson discussed how corporations are placing their data centers in places that are uniformly cold or even going so far as to bury them in the ocean in order to effectively cool them. She says, “we can link microelectronic components to processors, processors to memory using light . . . and that and that doesn’t burn any power.”


Ayar Labs Aims to Integrate Photonics Into CPUs

In the past five years, universities and startup companies have been the main driving force researching optical development.

Last week, US-based startup Ayar Labs announced that it has successfully secured $35M Series B funding with a host of investors, including Downing Ventures and BlueSky Capital, to develop an optical interconnect (OIO) technology

This road began in 2015 for Ayar Labs when researcher Chen Sun co-authored a paper detailing how to bond an electronic microprocessor with an optical processor in a 3 mm x 6 mm chip. The foundry-fabricated chip includes 70 million transistors along with 850 photonic components.


The 1st generation electronic/optical hybrid

The 1st generation electronic/optical hybrid co-processor co-developed at Berkeley in 2015. Image used courtesy of Glenn J. Asakawa and the University of California, Berkeley


The development was a major breakthrough in 2015—possibly the first of its kind, according to the researchers at Berkeley. 

“This is a milestone. It’s the first processor that can use light to communicate with the external world,” said Vladimir Stojanović, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the development of the chip. “No other processor has the photonic I/O in the chip.”


OIO Technology: More Bandwidth, Less Power and Latency

A technical brief authored by Ayar Labs in 2019 offers concrete details about the potential for the hybrid processor I/O:

  • Consumes less than 5 picojoules per bit of power (less than half of modern SerDes at 112 Gbps)
  • Improves latency by a factor of ten
  • Increases bandwidth up to 100 Tbps long-term, beyond what is possible for electrical interconnects


Ayar Labs' SoC representation demonstrating optical interconnections for a Terabit PHY monolithic-in-package optical (MIPO) I/O

Ayar Labs' SoC representation demonstrating optical interconnections for a Terabit PHY monolithic-in-package optical (MIPO) I/O. Image used courtesy of Ayar Labs


It seems that researchers, startups, and major corporations are on the cusp of a major shakeup in processor interconnect technology. Hybrid processors based on photonics solve the two major issues faced by the electronics semiconductor industry: power and speed bottlenecks.

Since 2015, Ayar Labs has been striving to offer solutions to these immediate problems. In 2020, research is accelerating worldwide, heating up the market to cool down technology.



Do you work with photonics technology? What road bumps do you foresee in integrating optical technology into traditional electronic chips? Share your thoughts in the comments below.