I’m writing today to congratulate Intel Fellow Dr. Mario Paniccia for receiving EE Times’ “ACE” award for Innovator of the Year last night in San Jose. These awards celebrate technologists who demonstrate leadership and innovation to change the electronics industry and the world. He won this for leading the research team that developed the 50Gbps Silicon Photonics Link, a concept fiber-optic connection designed to validate Mario’s vision to ‘siliconize’ photonics.
This device represents a tremendous potential to bring fiber optics to the mainstream. For personal devices, it could become practical to have connections that could backup an entire hard drives or transfer entire music libraries between devices in seconds. A single cable could carry video to a wall-sized HD display with a resolution equal to an array of ten or more 1080p screens. For the enterprise, pervasive fiber optics could eliminate traditional design constraints due to the distance and bandwidth of data cables. Entirely new architectures could be created which rearrange CPUs, memory, and other devices in a much more scalable fashion.
Though this is his first ACE award, it is actually the second time Mario has been nominated The first was in 2006, following the development of first 1 GHz silicon modulator and silicon-based laser. Having worked closely with Mario for many years, I’d like to share some of the history that led to this new achievement.
Before the turn of the millennium, silicon photonics remained an unlikely candidate for fiber optics. Silicon lacked many of the capabilities required for optical communication. Intel’s own Silicon Photonicsresearch has its roots in a debug tool developed by Mario in the late 1990s called the Laser Voltage Probe. The “LVP” became a standard tool to allow debug engineers to measure transistor signals on microprocessors by probing through the back side of the silicon with an infrared laser beam.
About a year or so later, Mario pitched an idea to Intel senior management for a silicon-based telecom optical switch, based on the same effect exploited by the LVP. After a few years of research it became apparent that the best use of this switching technology would be to create a fast modulator (an optical data encoder), which did not exist yet in silicon above a mere 20 MHz. The initial goal was ~1 GHz. Amid much skepticism, the team not only met the goal, they exceeded it. Today, silicon modulators at Intel Labs can send data at rates of 40 Gbps.
Mario’s vision included three phases of research and development: I) prove feasibility with demonstration of optical building blocks, then II) move to integration, and finally III) high volume manufacturability. For the middle part of the past decade, his team focused on phase I, developing a variety fundamental building blocks such as photodetectors, lasers, and modulators, and then scaling their performance to higher speeds.
Soon after, the team shifted focus from the development of building blocks to phase II: integration. The 50 Gbps silicon photonics link is the result of that effort, and required Mario’s team to put devices with different process recipes onto the same piece of silicon, assemble them on to circuit boards, and connect them to optical fibers to create an end-to-end link. Read more about the device here.
Using silicon allows one to benefit from the decades of high volume manufacturing infrastructure developed for silicon integrated circuits such as microprocessors. We’ve seen what silicon integration can do for electronics, and I believe we will get similar benefits from silicon photonics.
Mario is now leading the team into phase III: Tackling the remaining challenges that could stand in the way of high-volume production of these devices. This includes researching the issues of making reliable integrated devices economically on a large scale, as well as continuing to increase levels of integration, performance, and scalability. 50Gbps is just a beginning – Mario expects to see 1 Terabit/s coming out of a single silicon chip in the near future.
So, again, I congratulate Mario and his team for this well-earned award. He has helped to take silicon photonics from a technology that few believed in, to one we can now see approaching on the horizon for a variety of applications.