Optical components

Agilent, IBM Connect Optically

Optical interconnection technology just got a deadline: three years.

That's the timetable set by the $30 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract awarded today to Agilent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: A) and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM). By then, the companies will have to demonstrate a circuit board that includes optical technology such as VCSELs and detectors connected by a waveguide. The idea is that the waveguide -- made of a material yet to be determined [ed. note: kryptonite, anyone?] -- will be a faster replacement for the copper pathways used to connect chips on circuit boards (see Agilent, IBM Team for Darpa).

Each of the pieces involved has been developed before, but not in the coordinated manner planned here. The companies want their VCSEL module to deliver an aggregate 1 Tbit/s of data, using line speeds of 40 Gbit/s or higher. The transmitter and receiver modules would each measure about two square centimeters.

Each module will sit inside a chip-like platform, making them easy to place on a circuit board. The latter part is important, because, besides being fancy and cool, the end result has to be relatively cheap and easy to manufacture, says IBM researcher Marc Taubenblatt.

Researchers won't be dedicated to the program, so it's difficult to come up with a headcount for the project. "It's commensurate with the size of the program. We'll have a number of people working on it in various ways," Taubenblatt says.

IBM's half of the deal will focus on integration and packaging, tasks that are part of the company's usual research in semiconductor manufacturing. Agilent will concentrate on the specific components, which includes development of the waveguide that would replace copper interconnects on a card. The companies haven't determined what material to use for the waveguide, but polymers are in the running, Taubenblatt says.

Coincidentally, Dow Corning Corp. this week announced plans to pursue similar applications of polymers, through a newly created photonics division (see Dow Corning Does Photonics).

The 30-employee division was created to develop new materials to sell to vendors of optical fiber and optical components, with one project being waveguides made of silicon-based polymers. Dow Corning has been talking to "various parties" related to the Agilent-IBM contract about silicon-based alternatives, says Peter Lo, science and technology manager of the photonics division.

Optical Crosslinks Inc. is another company pursuing polymer waveguides (see Optical CrossLinks Wins Deals). DuPont Photonics Technologies LLC could be working on the problem as well. The division of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. (NYSE: DD) was created after the acquisition of Telephotonics Inc. (see Components Casualty Count Climbing and DuPont Opens Photonics Shop).

It might also be possible to develop the waveguides in ordinary silicon, a tactic being pursued by GalayOr Networks, which is being acquired by Memscap S.A. (Euronext: MEMS). GalayOr's moveable silicon waveguides were shown at OFC as part of a project for Infinera (see GalayOr's Flights of Fancy and Memscap to Acquire GalayOr).

That's a bit fancier than the route IBM and Agilent expect to pursue. "We're not doing anything further with the waveguides. They would just be the transmission vehicle," Taubenblatt says.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

whyiswhy 12/4/2012 | 11:26:35 PM
re: Agilent, IBM Connect Optically If there ever were two companies less deserving of government assistance to advance electro-optics, it's these two, now.

Crap, $30M would MAKE about five or six small companies with much more advanced technology, and in much more need of canned processed PORK.

But that's JMHO

Fortunecookie 12/4/2012 | 11:26:34 PM
re: Agilent, IBM Connect Optically I am second on this.

SIVROCX 12/4/2012 | 11:26:28 PM
re: Agilent, IBM Connect Optically DARPA is not the social arm of the corporate welfare system. It must choose not only those that can get the job done, but those with the ability and capability with good people, good facilities, good technology and with staying power. While no company or set of companies have corner on invention IBM last year was granted more patents than any other company.

Just a different angle.
gadfly 12/4/2012 | 11:26:21 PM
re: Agilent, IBM Connect Optically It seems that DARPA has done the right thing and selected key companies, Agilent & IBM, with the established facilities and real world perspective to make the solutions they develop actually practical. There is room for smaller companies to contribute as well.
Waveguides fabricated with semiconductor materials or silicon oxides show great potential as practical solutions. Polymers are easy to work with and potentially inexpensive but have a long history of stability problems so far. Longer term solutions like Ormocers and similar materials show much more promise.
The wild and crazy solutions promised by others still remain on the lunatic fringe but maybe someday....

dontmakewaves 12/4/2012 | 11:26:16 PM
re: Agilent, IBM Connect Optically What a joke. IBM and agilent are large product oriented companies with gigabuck internal R&D budgets. If there were real product or military potential, those concerns would commit internal funds as necessary to make money off the product opportunity. This will be just like the Holographic memory fiasco that Darpa paid IBM millions for a few years ago. Whose in bed with who?
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