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Agilent, IBM Connect OpticallyAgilent, IBM Connect Optically

The companies pick up a $30M DARPA contract to get optics onto circuit boards

September 11, 2003

3 Min Read
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

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