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Silicon Photonics

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Ayar Labs advances I/O and pens GlobalFoundries deal 

Silicon photonics start-up, Ayar Labs, has entered into a strategic agreement with semiconductor foundry, GlobalFoundries.

Alexandra Wright-GladsteinAyar Labs will provide GlobalFoundries with its optical input-output (I/O) technology. In return, the start-up will gain early access to the foundry’s 45nm CMOS process being tailored for silicon photonics.

GlobalFoundries has also made an investment in the start-up for an undisclosed fee.

“We gain, first and foremost, a close relationship with GlobalFoundries as we qualify our product for customers,” says Alexandra Wright-Gladstein, co-founder and CEO of Ayar Labs. “That will help us speed up availability of our product and have their weight of support behind us.”



Ayar Labs is bringing to market technology developed by academics originally at MIT. The research group developed a way to manufacture silicon photonics components using a standard silicon-on-insulator (SOI) CMOS process. The research work resulted in a novel dual-core RISC-V microprocessor demonstrator that used optical I/O to send and receive data, work that was published in the Nature science journal in December 2015.

Ayar Labs is using its optical I/O technology to address the high-performance computing and data centre markets. The optical I/O reaches up to 2km, from chip-to-chip communications to linking equipment between the buildings of a large data centre. 

The start-up will offer a die - chiplet - that can be integrated within a multi-chip module, as well as a high-capacity 3.2-terabit optical module.

“We are aggregating the capacity of 4, 8 or 16 pluggable transceivers into a single module to share the cost of production at such high data rates,” says Wright-Gladstein. “This makes us competitive [for applications] where a pluggable transceiver is not.” Offering a chiplet and a high-density optical module on a board will bring to the marketplace the benefits companies are looking for if they are to move from copper to optics, she says.

Ayar Labs will also license its technology. “Our goal is to create an ecosystem for optical I/O for chips,” says Wright-Gladstein.




Ayar Labs has been a customer of GlobalFoundries for several years, using its existing 45nm SOI CMOS process to make devices as part of the foundry’s multi-project wafer service. The start-up will use the same 45nm CMOS process to make its first product. The CEO points out that using an unmodified electronics process introduces tight design constraints; no new materials can be introduced or layer thicknesses modified. 

The start-up will also support GlobalFoundries in the development of its 45nm CMOS process optimised for silicon photonics. “The new process is more geared to traditional applications of optics such as optical transceivers for longer-distance communications,” says Wright-Gladstein.


Our goal is to create an ecosystem for optical I/O for chips


The intellectual property of Ayar Labs includes a micro-ring resonator optical modulator that is tiny compared to a Mach-Zehnder modulator. An issue with a micro-ring resonator is its sensitivity to temperature and manufacturing variances. Ayar’s Labs ability to design the ring resonator using standard CMOS means control circuitry can be added to ensure the modulator’s stability. 

Ayar Labs has advanced its technology since the publication of the 2015 Nature paper. It has changed the operating wavelength of its optics from 1180nm to the standard 1310nm. It has also increased the speed of optical transmission from 2.5 to 25 gigabits-per-second (Gbps). The start-up expects to be able to extend the data rate to 50Gbps and even 100Gbps using 4-level pulse-amplitude modulation (PAM-4). The company has already demonstrated PAM-4 technology working with its optics. 

The company also has wavelength-division multiplexing technology, using 8 wavelengths on a fibre; the original microprocessor demonstrator used only one wavelength. “We have 8 [micro-resonator] rings that lock on the transmit side and 8 rings that lock on the receive side,” says Wright-Gladstein. The company expects to extend the number of working wavelengths to 16 and even 32.

“We believe this is the process of the future because it can scale,” she says.


A factor of 10

Wright-Gladstein says its technology delivers a tenfold improvement using several metrics when compared to copper interconnect.

Typically a 25Gbps electrical interface will occupy 1 mm2 of chip area whereas Ayar Labs can fit more - potentially much more - than 250Gbps. The use of WDM technology also means that the amount of data passing the chip’s edge is at least 10 times greater.


The energy efficiency for the I/O is also between 5 times and 20 times greater than copper


The latency - how long it takes a signal to arrive at the receiver from the transmitter - is also improved tenfold. The fastest electrical interfaces at 56Gbps that use PAM-4 require forward-error correction which adds 100ns to the latency. Sending light 3m between racks takes 10ns, a tenth of the time. And more wavelengths can be added rather than using PAM-4 to avoid adversely impacting latency. “That matters for HPC customers,” she says.

The energy efficiency for the I/O is also between 5 times and 20 times greater than copper.

Ayar Labs has also developed an integrated laser module that provides the light sources for its optical I/O. Multiple lasers are integrated on a single die and the module outputs several wavelengths of light on several fibres.

The start-up claims the overall optical I/O design is simplified as there is no attachment of laser dies to the silicon and there are no attached driver chips. The result is a die that is flip-chip-attached allowing the use of standard high-volume CMOS packaging techniques. 

First samples are expected sometime this year, with general product availability starting in 2019.

Meanwhile, GlobalFoundries is expected to offer the optical I/O as part of its 45nm silicon photonics process library in 2019.  

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