Photonic or Optical FPGAs on the horizon

Read an article this past week (Toward an optical FPGA – programable silicon photonics circuits) on a new technology that could underpin optical  FPGAs. The technology is based on implantable wave guides and uses silicon on insulator technology which is compatible with current chip fabrication.

How does the Optical FPGA work

Their Optical FPGA is based on an eraseable direct coupler (DC) built using GE (Germanium) ion implantation. A DC is used when two optical waveguides are placed close enough together such that optical energy (photons) on one wave guide is switched over to the other, nearby wave guide.

As can be seen in the figure, the red (eraseable, implantable) and blue (conventional) wave guides are fabricated on the FPGA. The red wave guide performs the function of DC between the two conventional wave guides. The diagram shows both a single stage and a dual stage DC.

By using imlantable (eraseable) DCs, one can change the path of a photonic circuit by just erasing the implantable wave guide(s).

The GE ion implantable wave guides are erased by passing a laser over it and thus annealing (melting) it.

Once erased, the implantable wave guide DC no longer works. The chart on the left of the figure above shows how long the implantable wave guide needs to be to work. As shown above once erased to be shorter than 4-5µm, it no longer acts as a DC.

It’s not clear how one directs the laser to the proper place on the Optical FPGA to anneal the implantable wave guide but that’s a question of servos and mirrors.

Previous attempts at optical FPGAs, required applying continuing voltage to maintain the switched photonics circuits. Once voltage was withdrawn the photonics reverted back to original configuration.

But once an implantable wave guide is erased (annealed) in their approach, the changes to the Optical FPGA are permanent.

FPGAs today

Electronic FPGAs have never gone out of favor with customers doing hardware innovation. By supplying Optical FPGAs, the techniques in the paper would allow for much more photonics innovation as well.

Optics are primarily used in communications and storage (CD-DVDs) today. But quantum computing could potentially use photonics and there’s been talk of a 100% optical computer for a long time. As more and more photonics circuitry comes online, the need for an optical FPGA grows. The fact that it’s able to be grown on today’s fab lines makes it even more appealing.

But an FPGA is more than just directional control over (electronic or photonic) energy. One needs to have other circuitry in place on the FPGA for it to do work.

For example, if this were an electronic FPGA, gates, adders, muxes, etc. would all be somewhere on the FPGA

However, once having placed additional optical componentry on the FPGA, photonic directional control would be the glue that makes the Optical FPGA programmable.


Photo Credit(s): All photos from Toward an optical FPGA – programable silicon photonics circuits paper