iPronics Commercializes Easily Programmable Photonic Processors
The Spanish company has created programmable photonic chips for wireless signal processing, data centers, machine learning, and other advanced computing applications.
Photonics is a promising field of research that focuses on the science of light and its possible uses for high-performing technologies. In recent years, academics and electronics companies have introduced a wide range of components that generate, manipulate, amplify, or detect light, including photonic integrated circuits (PICs).
PICs contain two or more components utilizing photons (particles of light) instead of electrons, the subatomic particles underpinning the operation of conventional electronic components. Because PICs are said to transmit and process data more efficiently than conventional integrated circuits (ICs), they could be particularly valuable for computationally demanding applications, such as artificial intelligence (AI).
iPronics, a company based in Valencia, Spain, has been developing programmable photonic systems based on sophisticated optical hardware that can be adapted to meet the needs of different applications. The photonic technology company was funded by the European Union (EU)’s Horizon Europe SME research and innovation program.
Photonic integrated hardware of PICs. Image (modified) courtesy of Nature
Last month, iPronics announced the first shipment of its programmable photonic microchips to several companies operating in different sectors. We spoke to Mark Halfman, CEO of iPronics, about the company’s processors and its recent commercialization.
A Programmable Photonic Chip
The programmable C-band photonic chip created by iPronics, dubbed the Smartlight Processor, is comprised of 72 tuning units arranged in a hexagonal configuration, along with 64 input/output ports. The chip’s optical hardware can be programmed and configured to meet the needs of different applications through its accompanying user-friendly software.
“Spun-out from the Technical University of Valencia in 2019, iPronics is making the computational power of photonics commercially available and affordable,” Halfman told All About Circuits. “We have pioneered the field of programmable photonics and have developed the first general-purpose photonic processor capable of programming high-speed light signals on-chip with unprecedented flexibility.”
The iPronics SmartLight processor. Image courtesy of iPronics
The iPronics Smartlight processor could improve the processing capabilities of different electronic devices, transmitting data at the speed of light while consuming significantly less power. Remarkably, the chip was found to consume 10 times less power than conventional electrical ICs, while processing a greater amount of information and working 20 times faster.
“iPronics programmable processors share a common hardware platform that is reconfigurable by software,” Halfman explained. “This cost-effective solution enables the same hardware to be applied to limitless commercial applications with a voracious appetite for computational power, including 5G/6G communications, data centers, artificial intelligence, autonomous driving, quantum computing, and IoT.”
Making Photonic Chips More Accessible
While many studies have explored and demonstrated the potential of photonic microchips, so far, very few photonic chips have been commercialized and deployed on a large scale. One reason for this is that implementing these ICs and adapting them for specific uses often requires expert knowledge of their unique light-driven design.
Design of the programmable photonic chip developed by iPronics. Image courtesy of iPronics
The key mission of iPronics is to create photonic technologies that can be easily adapted for different use cases, even if the engineers and companies utilizing them only have a basic understanding of photonics. Since its release, iPronics' chip has already been purchased by several companies specializing in the fabrication of consumer electronics and telecommunication devices.
“iPronics is delivering a complete photonic processor platform, which includes the reconfigurable photonic IC, control electronics, and programming software,” Halfman said. “Until now, implementation of photonic integrated circuits has required thorough expertise in integrated photonic IC design and optical packaging. By providing customers a software reprogrammable implementation, we reduce the technical barriers to entry, enable the ready implementation of a variety of complex photonic circuits, and open a much wider range of applications and markets.”
Moving Toward Light-driven Innovation
Founded just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, iPronics is already widely introducing photonic technologies. Its general-purpose photonic processor could soon be adopted by a growing number of companies worldwide and integrated into a range of devices, improving their performance and energy efficiency.
“The vast majority of photonic chips on the market today are application-specific fixed-function chips,” Halfman said. “A unique element of iPronics’ solution is the reconfigurability of the chip, which unlocks new commercial applications by delivering dramatically faster time to market, with lower total cost and risk mitigation.”
The SmartLight processor could be particularly advantageous for new and computationally demanding applications. For instance, it could be used to process 5G and 6G signals more efficiently or to meet the high computational demands of data centers and artificial intelligence (AI) tools. It could also be integrated into optical/RF devices, satellite communication technologies, LiDAR, and autonomous vehicles, to improve their processing speeds and power efficiencies.