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The future's bright for Europe's optical chips sector

A new EU-funded project is set to dramatically bring down the costs of optical chips, helping Europe maintain its lead in this potentially lucrative market. Dubbed PARADIGM ('Photonic advanced research and development for integrated generic manufacturing'), the project has a b...

A new EU-funded project is set to dramatically bring down the costs of optical chips, helping Europe maintain its lead in this potentially lucrative market. Dubbed PARADIGM ('Photonic advanced research and development for integrated generic manufacturing'), the project has a budget of EUR 12.7 million, EUR 8.3 million of which comes from the 'Information and communication technologies' (ICT) Theme of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Optical chips work with light signals instead of electronic signals. Although data is already transmitted optically along glass fibre cables, there is immense potential for the greater use of optical chips in computers and processors. Optical chip technology could be used in a wide array of applications. For example, fibre sensors can be used to measure many things, including tension in bridges, aeroplanes or windmill blades, and to issue warnings to prevent the structure from becoming overloaded. Optical chips could also be used in medical instruments and computers. The PARADIGM team estimates that optical chips could eventually capture some 10% of the microelectronics market. Crucially, Europe currently has the lead in the development of optical chips, thanks in part to existing European projects designed to standardise optical integration technology. With PARADIGM's help, Europe will gain an even stronger foothold in the market. The project will focus on indium phosphide (InP) technologies which are seen as highly promising for both existing and future applications. The key challenge for the PARADIGM consortium is to bring down the cost of developing and manufacturing optical chips. 'Microelectronics cost a few cents per square millimetre of chip, as the technology is mature and highly standardised. In addition, its development costs are low because we have sophisticated software for the fast and accurate design of the chips,' explained Meint Smit, a professor of Optical Communication Technology at Eindhoven University of Technology. 'We should also like to attain that capacity with photonic devices.' Specifically, PARADIGM plans to dramatically slash the cost of photonic integrated circuits (PICs), making them 10 times cheaper than they are today. It will do this by developing a generic platform technology for application-specific PICs. By focusing on enhancing capabilities at the platform level, the team hopes to cut the costs and time needed to bring a new component into production while giving the designer more room for creativity at the circuit level. The project covers the entire product development chain from the concept and design stages right through to manufacturing and application. The PARADIGM partners plan to validate the potential of their approach by creating a number of InP PICs that address applications as diverse as communications, sensors, data processing and biomedical systems. PARADIGM is coordinated by the Inter-University Research School on Communication Technologies Basic Research and Applications (COBRA Institute) at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. It got underway at the beginning of October and will run for four years. The project partners have expertise in semiconductor manufacture, PIC design and applications, photonic computer-aided design (CAD), packaging and assembly. They come from Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK and include universities, research institutes and software design companies.

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Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden

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