Optical broadband communication, biosensors and lidar-on-a-chip solutions, along with photonics processors for AI and other high-end computing applications, are driving progress in silicon photonics. The market is set to undergo rapid growth.
In a recent study, the analysts from Yole Développement weakened their growth forecast; however, the global silicon photonics market only knows one way: average annual growth rates of 36% on the raw chip (die) level are driving the young technology toward a volume of a billion US dollars. While market volume was USD 152 million in 2021, Yole forecasts a rise to USD 972 million by the year 2027.
To date, the most important market for silicon photonics has been data communication, where optical transceivers are paving the way for increasingly efficient data transmission with rapidly increasing data transfer rates. Intel, the market leader, has now advanced to pluggable optical modules with transfer speeds of 800 gigabits per second that can be integrated into existing Ethernet architectures. Co-packed optics will take over in place of pluggables in the next step. With speeds of up to 16 terabits per second, these will not only enable a whole new level of broadband but will also achieve significantly higher energy efficiency thanks to fully integrated photonic integrated circuits. While Intel indicates the energy requirement of its most recent 800 G Ethernet pluggables at 30 picojoules per bit (pJ/bit), co-packed optics are expected to lower this figure to well below 5 pJ/bit.
Advances like these drive market growth as well as the full integration of lidar systems on silicon chips. One of these lidar system-on-chip (SOC) concepts comes from Intel’s Israeli subsidiary Mobileye and integrates both the laser beam sources as well as the receiving photo diodes on a single chip. This is also a fully integrated photonic integrated circuit (PIC) that is expected to take over the market for autonomous vehicles by the middle of the decade. Additionally, PIC platforms for biomedical sensors—whose use in wearables, for instance, has great potential—are currently making their way to the market. Yole mentions the VitalSpexTM biosensor platform from the UK- and California-based start-up Rockley Photonics as an example in this regard. Silicon photonic sensors are often based on spectroscopic processes. For this, miniaturized tunable beam sources and ring resonators are integrated on semiconductor chips together with circuits.
Analysts also expect breakneck growth of silicon photonics in the sectors of artificial intelligence (AI) and high-end computing. The annual growth rates are as high as 140% here, which means this new market segment will already reach a volume of nearly USD 250 million by 2027. According to Intel, the combination of common silicon chips with photonic modules will lead to innovative processor architectures. A leap in technology is necessary for both central processing units (CPUs) as well as graphic processing units (GPUs) to maintain the ability to deal with the continuing steep rise in data volumes.
Experts like Michal Lipson, professor of applied physics at Columbia University in New York, and Professor Roel Baets, who heads the Center for Nano- and Biophotonics at Ghent University in Belgium, see great disruptive potential in silicon photonics. The technology is currently in a phase comparable with that of the chip industry during the 1970s. In light of the enormous start-up investment for the production technology and the clean rooms, the industrial breakthrough did not come until the advent of the semiconductor foundries, which manufactured—and often still manufacture—products from various semiconductor companies on their infrastructure. Baets reckons that silicon photonics will also make its way to a mass market in this manner, because new companies can use this structure to share costs and risks. To this end, he initiated the European Silicon Photonics Alliance—ePIXfab—years ago.