01.01.2021

Photonic switch on the right tracks

A photonic switch developed by Perth-based researchers has been backed by UWA to help it reach its commercial potential.

In late 2019, Associate Professors Mariusz Martyniuk and Gino Putrino, and Professor Dilusha Silva from UWA’s Microelectronics Research Group, were awarded a Pathfinder grant of up to $25,000 to build and test a prototype light-coupling switching device at UWA.

The UWA team has taken a Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS)-based approach – these devices feature micron-sized movable parts that are used to perform an array of tasks such as sensing movement or temperature in a smartphone.

The team’s technology could help meet the ever-increasing need for faster network speeds by improving information transfer in light-based devices, providing system performance benefits while reducing energy costs. The novel design of the team’s MEMS-based approach requires minimal energy consumption and is economic to manufacture using conventional fabrication processes.

The ability to redirect light signals is essential to many established photonic practices, such as fibre optic cable networks, but is also vital to new and emerging applications including photonic-based computer chips and photonic integrated chips. In all of these applications, rapid redirection of light between outputs allows for incredible speeds of data transmission.

In this case, a MEMS approach is used to switch light from one channel to another in a similar fashion to how trains change between tracks via a railroad turnout. Light signals enter the device through an ordinary waveguide, but are then coupled to a suspended waveguide that can either carry them on the same course, or can “change between the tracks”, redirecting the flow of information to another output.

The switching is entirely controllable through electronic signals, and the changes happen almost instantly. Importantly, this is achieved with a fraction of power in comparison to current commercial technologies.

“If the predicted ‘low loss’ of light in our new design can be demonstrated, it offers the potential for efficient and economic control of on-chip light propagation, enabling a wide range of applications from high-speed optical communications to ultra- low power signal processing,” Assoc. Prof Martyniuk explained.

“The Pathfinder funding along with additional and significant contributions from our industry partner and the DST Group goes a long way to being able to test whether the design works as well as we think it will,” Assoc. Prof Martyniuk said. “The MEMS fabrication capabilities and know-how available at ANFF-WA are the enabling factors in this project, and are essential to the past and future successes of this project.”

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