$1.75 Million Grant to Fund Push for Photon Chip

Findings May Transform Search for More Powerful Semiconductors

Jan. 18, 2008

UT Dallas researchers have received a $1.75 million grant to develop novel microchip technology that’s smaller, faster and more energy-efficient than anything on the market today.

The secret ingredient is light.

Like so many other modern high-tech devices, the new technology will be silicon-based. But unlike them, it will use photons rather than electrons to get the job done.

“This research is intended to produce a completely new class of components that could have a revolutionary impact on information engineering,” said Duncan MacFarlane, a professor of electrical engineering at UT Dallas and principal investigator for the grant.

“The photonic integrated circuit we’re developing will be a versatile, programmable, scalable device that will process photonic signals and provide a sophisticated and practical interface with existing electronics,” he added.

In addition to meeting the needs of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for ever-more-sophisticated technology, the 18-month effort is intended to demonstrate how photonics can enable the semiconductor industry to continue its decades-long record of regularly producing ever-more-powerful chips.

The current roadmap for semiconductor evolution envisions the need for just such an innovation in coming years, when current design and manufacturing processes are expected to encounter physical barriers to continued miniaturization.

The grant was awarded based on the researchers’ progress in the analysis and design of photonic technology as well as their creation over the years of an impressive nanophotonic development facility.

A collaborative effort known as PhASER – short for photonic analog signal processing engines with reconfigurability – the research project will also involve four other organizations:

• Southern Methodist University researchers have been collaborating with UT Dallas researchers for five years on photonic integrated circuitry, and they’ll continue analyzing and optimizing designs using a powerful computing cluster at SMU.

• Photodigm Inc., an 8-year-old Dallas-area photonics technology company that has also been working with UTD researchers for several years, will participate in device design and fabrication.

• Military contractors Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co. will evaluate the photonic technology’s performance in high-tech antenna systems and laser radar.

“This award is a great vote of confidence from DARPA and reflects the talent on the team we’ve assembled,” MacFarlane added. That team includes UT Dallas faculty Bob Hunt, Vish Ramakrishna and Jiyoung Kim as well as Gary Evans and Marc Christensen, who are each associated with both Photodigm and SMU.

DARPA is the central research and development organization of the U.S. Department of Defense.

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Duncan McFarlane
UT Dallas electrical engineering professor Duncan MacFarlane examines a device under development in his Photonic Devices and Systems Laboratory.

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August 23, 2019