This week, a couple of optical startups got a lucky break from the U.S. government. As recipients of awards from the Department of Commerce's Advanced Technology Program (ATP), they'll be receiving grants of up to $2 million over two years.
According to the blurb on the program's Website, ATP is a highly-competitive award scheme aimed at encouraging "high-risk research and development projects that have the potential to spark important, broad-based economic or social benefits for the United States." It's designed to fund research before it reaches the product development stage.
Last year's photonics developments didn't attract the ATP judges: Out of 43 awards, there were none for optical components companies. Possibly the amount of venture capital flowing into the industry put optical vendors out of the running.
This year, however, optical components are back on the agenda, with three out of 40 awards going to photonics firms. Oddly enough, all three companies are developing all-optical switching subsystems. Here are some more details:
Project aim: MEMS are analogue -- they must be moved through very precise angles in order to direct light through an optical switch. Controlling these angles precisely is widely recognized as one of the fundamental challenges in MEMS design. The company plans to develop robust control algorithms that will be implemented on a control circuit connected vertically to the MEMS chips. It will then make this technology available to others through its foundry business (see Big Vendors Acquire MEMS Makers).
Luxtera Inc. Nanophotonic Integrated Circuits for Telecommunications and Computing
Project duration: 2 years
Total project (est.): $4.194 million
Requested ATP funds: $2 million
Project aim: Luxtera plans to shrink entire optical switching systems down to just a few microchips using what it calls "nanophotonic integrated circuit (npIC) platform technology." Exactly how it is going to do this is rather vague, and few clues are elsewhere available. What is known is about Luxtera is that it was founded by Eli Yablonovitch, who is widely regarded as the inventor of photonic crystals -- miniscule structures that can act like perfect mirrors (see Twisty Crystal and The Hole Thing for more details). Luxtera says its project is too futuristic to win venture capital funding -- no, really?
SiWave Inc.Low Cost, Highly Scaleable Optical Switches Using Digital MEMS Mirror Arrays
Project duration: 2 years
Total project (est.): $4.066 million
Requested ATP funds: $1.978 million
Project aim: SiWave is developing what it calls "digital 3D MEMS," comprising pairs of digitally controlled mirrors to direct light in hundreds to thousands of different directions inside an optical switch. In other words, it has found a way to sidestep the problem of analogue mirror control that Corning Intellisense is trying to solve. According to its project proposal, it plans to do this using precise mechanical positioning to eliminate costly feedback circuitry. The upshot, it claims, is a much simpler and cheaper design. In fact, SiWave goes as far as claiming that digital MEMS would be "10 times cheaper, 20 times smaller, require less power, and be more reliable than other 3D MEMS-based approaches to optical switching." The ATP funds will be used to develop and demonstrate a high-capacity switch with 256 input and output ports. It's worth noting, however, that other startups also claim to have invented digital MEMS (see Umachines Claims 2D MEMS Advance).
— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading www.lightreading.comWant to know more? The big cheeses of the optical networking industry will be discussing optical switches at Lightspeed Europe. Check it out atLightspeed Europe 02.