Nanovation Comes Down to Earth

Since Nanovation Technologies Inc. dumped its big-spending CEO a few weeks ago (see Nanovation's CEO Gets The Heave-Ho), the optical-chip startup has come down to earth with quite a big bump.

Yesterday, it announced consolidation that will shift Nanovation's HQ from Miami to a rather less glamorous location: Northville Township, Michigan (see Nanovation Consolidates). And that, it turns out, is symbolic of other changes occuring at the developer of optical integrated circuits.

In particular, Nanovation now says that it'll use silica-on-silicon materials technology to make its chips. That's a big come-down from its ambitious plans to use indium phosphide to set it apart from the competition. Nanovation "still has faith in indium phosphide," CTO Gary Bjorklund told Light Reading yesterday. “But it’s turning out to be a long-term research program."

Here’s what’s going on:

Nanovation is aiming to make the optical equivalent of ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) – chips tailored to the requirements of OEMs, which might incorporate both passive and active devices. (Passive devices require no electrical power and do things like splitting light into different wavelengths. Active devices require power and typically emit, detect, amplify, or switch light.)

In general, different materials have to be used for making passive or active devices, but indium phosphide holds out the promise of being suitable for making both types -- which is one of the reasons Nanovation liked it.

Nanovation also liked indium phosphide's very fast switching speeds. “It’ll switch in a nanosecond, 10 million times faster than an electro-mechanical switch,” Bjorklund says. In addition, it’s also possible to cram a lot of devices onto a small indium phosphide chip, because the waveguides are particularly narrow and can steer light around very sharp corners.

Manufacturing indium phosphide chips, however, is challenging. It’s proved particularly tough to make the 3D trumpet-shaped funnels that steer light from the much thicker cores of optic fiber into the narrow waveguides in the chip itself, according to Bjorklund.

Nanovation did some market research to figure out whether indium phosphide was worth the hassle and got some surprising results. “There’s no compelling need for fast switching," acknowledges Bjorklund. "We got a rude awakening."

This awakening has led Nanovation into focusing its work on silica-on-silicon, a material used by a number of other startups -- notably Lightwave Microsystems Corp. and Kymata Inc. It’s easier to make silica-on-silicon chips using standard semiconductor processes, but the material is only suitable for passive devices.

There is a way around this problem -- by selectively carving out the material to make tiny mechanical devices using MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) technology. Nanovation demonstrated this in chips that it showed at the Optical Fiber Conference (OFC) last March.

These developments come courtesy of a partnership with Cronos, the MEMS manufacturer bought by JDS Uniphase Inc. (Nasdaq: JDSU) earlier this year (see JDS Uniphase Moves Into MEMS). Bjorklund says that Cronos has been “an excellent partner” but acknowledges that it may not last forever. If Nanovation starts stealing business from JDSU, JDSU could pull the plug.

-- Peter Heywood, international editor, Light Reading
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