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Researchers switch to photons in race for faster microchip

UT Dallas to develop photonic integrated circuit faster than anything on the market today.

Electron microscope image of early prototype. University of Texas at Dallas

The University of Texas at Dallas has entered the race to produce a more powerful semiconductor using a $1.75 million grant from DARPA to develop a microchip that is "faster than anything" on the market today.

The new technology will still be silicon-based but will use photons rather than electrons to speed things up, according to a UT press release.

"This research is intended to produce a completely new class of components that could have a revolutionary impact on information engineering," Professor Duncan MacFarlane said. "The photonic integrated circuit (PIC) 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."

Total internal reflection mirrors are fabricated using focused ion-beam micromachining. Erik Jonsson/School of Engineering and Computer Science, UT Dallas

The military's vociferous appetite for hotter technology and market demand for more powerful chips are driving the research. "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," according to UT. The project, known as PhASER (photonic analog signal processing engines with reconfigurability), will develop a fundamental PIC that can act as a reconfigurable building block in forming a high-throughput, low-power, analog signal processor and overcome the limits of conventional silicon-based processing technology, according to DARPA.

The research will take place in UT's new nanophotonic development facility. Collaborators include Southern Methodist University and Dallas-based photonics technology company Photodigm. Northrop Grumman and Raytheon will evaluate the technology's performance in high-tech antenna systems and laser radar, according to UT.