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Optical components

Investors Fire Up Lamina Ceramics

Given that packaging is one of the most expensive parts of an optical component, it's no surprise to discover a startup aiming to cash in on the opportunity.

Lamina Ceramics Inc., which today announced a $12 million first round led by Morgenthaler Ventures, is developing a multilayer ceramic-on-metal packaging technology that could help components vendors slash costs, while at the same time offering improved performance over existing packaging (see Lamina Raises $12 Million).

"For people using Kovar packaging right now, [Lamina's technology is] going to help them in a big way, maybe even halving their packaging costs," claims Lamina's CEO Taylor Adair. Kovar is a metal commonly used in packaging because it has a coefficient of thermal expansion that's similar to glass.

Ceramic packaging is not new. Its main advantage over metal packages is that it doesn't dissipate the energy of any high radio frequency (RF) signals carried by the components within them, says Adair. "Electronics engineers take a lot of trouble to create this energy, and they want it to go where it's aimed."

Advances in wireless and high-speed digital communications are forcing packaging engineers to take a fresh look at ceramics, he adds. At 10 Gbit/s and higher, digital signals are indistinguishable from RF signals, and that is what's driving the interest from optical networking components vendors.

Adair says the potential big customers for his startup are transceiver vendors. Lamina is also in discussions with micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) switching folks about packaging and substrates, and with wireless chip makers.

Further proof that the optical future could pivot on packaging technology lies in the fact that a system vendor has invested in Lamina. The name of the vendor was not disclosed, but it appears to own a signficant stake in the startup. Lead investor Morgenthaler holds the biggest stake of 40 percent. Sarnoff Corp., the institution where the technology was developed, and the unknown system vendor own another 40 percent between them.

The Sarnoff connection runs deep. It was reportedly working for 10 years on the technology that ultimately became Lamina, which it calls low-temperature co-fired ceramic-on-metal (LTCC-M). "It's quite a luxury to start a company to commercialise a technology that already works," quips Adair.

Several key members of staff hail from Sarnoff, although Adair himself was brought in after the spinoff. He is a former executive of EMC Technology Inc., a vendor of microwave components.

Lamina's technology is based on an existing ceramic process, simple LTCC, that is currently offered by a number of foundries worldwide, including IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), Kyocera Inc., National Semiconductor Corp. (NYSE: NSM), and NTK Technologies Inc. LTCC is a multilayer ceramic that can contain embedded wires and passive electronics inside, resulting in packaged products of increased density. Lamina claims it has improved on this by using a proprietary technique to bond a piece of metal to the ceramic before it is consolidated by firing in a kiln. The resulting combination has some of the best properties of metals, such as the ability to dissipate more heat, together with the benefits of ceramics.

There are a couple of other advantages, Adair notes. By prebonding metal to the ceramic, it prevents the composite structure from shrinking during the firing process, which can be a problem with ordinary LTCCs. It also improves the flexible strength of the part, making it possible to create individual pieces up to 10 inches wide -- about four times larger than what's possible in plain ceramics.

When it comes to packaging, mechanical properties are very important, according to Katharine Frase, director, worldwide applications, interconnect product, at IBM microelectronics in East Fishkill, New York. "We sell [ceramics] to many different companies for many different reasons," she says. "With optical components vendors, we sell as much for the mechanical atributes as for the electrical ones."

However, Frase is a slightly bemused by the idea of bonding metal onto a ceramic. It's not immediately clear to her what the benefit is.

According to Adair, customers will probably "dip their toes in the water" by using LTCC-M to replace just the existing ceramic carrier inside their metal packages. But, in the longer term, he is hoping that customers will replace the entire unit with Lamina's packaging. That's something that would be difficult to do with ordinary ceramic, he contends.

Right now, Lamina is working out of Sarnoff's premises, although it is in the process of building its own 50,000-square-foot fabrication plant, which is due for completion in late spring 2002. The company was founded in April 2001.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading
http://www.lightreading.com
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