Silicon photonics ready for take-off towards ‘multibillion-dollar’ market

Created December 5, 2016
News and Business

Datacenters with few other emerging applications will become a multibillion-dollar market for silicon photonics by 2025, according to market analyst company Yole Développement. The principal reasons for this expected boost for silicon technologies are that transporting increasing levels of data with existing technologies will soon reach its limit and photons will continue replacing step-by-step electrons throughout networks.

Furthermore, growing investments made by VCs into these technologies have been identified by Yole Développements’ analysts and new startups have been created in this sector. All these indicators confirm the trend: “silicon photonic technologies have reached the tipping point that precedes massive growth”.

Yole, the « More than Moore » market research and strategy consulting company has published a new technology & market analysis entitled “Silicon Photonics for datacenters and other applications”. Authors Dr Eric Mounier, Sr Technnology & Market Analyst at Yole and Jean-Louis Malinge, former CEO of Kotura, now at ARCH Venture Partners have combined their knowledge of the silicon photonic industry to perform a deep added-value analysis.

The report serves to answer questions such as: what is the current status of silicon photonic technologies; what are the commercially-available solutions; what is today’s market size and growth; and what is the investment picture?

Yole reports that the silicon photonics market is still modest with estimated sales below US$40 million in 2015 and very few companies actually shipping products in the open market: Mellanox, Cisco, Luxtera, Intel, ST Microelectronics, Acacia and Molex are part of these leading players.

Silicon photonics has been under development for years. However now, this technology is being pushed hard by large webcom companies like Facebook and Microsoft.

“Silicon photonics has reached the tipping point that precedes massive growth”, comments Dr Eric Mounier from Yole. “Indeed we estimate, the packaged silicon photonics transceiver market will be worth US$6 billion in 10 years.”

Silicon photonics is an exciting technology mixing optics, CMOS technology and advanced packaging. This combination benefits from semiconductor wafer manufacturing scalability to reduce costs.

“Silicon photonics offers silicon technology advantages including higher integration, more functionalities embedded with lower power consumption and better reliability compared to legacy optics”, says analyst Jean-Louis Malinge.

In 2020 and beyond, silicon photonic chips will far exceed copper cabling capabilities. Such solutions will be so deployed in high-speed signal transmission systems. In 2025 and more, the technology will be more and more used in processing such as interconnecting multiple cores with processor chips.

Indeed, according to Yole’s analysts, the chip market value should score US$1,5 billion in 2025 at chip level (Estimated to be less than US$40 million in 2015). Yole comments: “Step by step photons get closer to the chips!”

Data centers are clearly the best opportunity for silicon photonics technology today. And there are also many other applications that silicon photonics can enable. These include high performance computers, telecommunications, sensors, life science, quantum computers and other high-end applications.

Two applications are particularly interesting as silicon photonics can push the integration of optical functions and miniaturization further to achieve successful products. Those applications are lidars for autonomous cars and biochemical and chemical sensors.

Lidars are costly and bulky instruments, which make their integration in a car challenging. Within a promising ADAS market expected to reach US$3,9 billion in 2017 silicon photonic-based lidar will play a key role.

Silicon photonics allow lidar without moving elements, which can experience issues in a harsh car environment. Last August, MIT’s Photonic Microsystems Group announced a successful DARPA project using silicon photonics for lidar-on-a-chip with steerable transmitting and receiving phased arrays and on-chip Ge photodetectors.

Biochemical and gas sensors are not new, and several applications have existed for a while. Day by day, the interest in gas sensing is gaining importance due to the emergence of promising new large volume portable applications. Integration of biochemical or gas sensors into smart phones or wearables is currently on the roadmap of many companies but size, cost and sensitivity are still issues. To push optical gas sensor miniaturization further, some companies are already considering silicon photonics as an integration platform for their devices.

These non-data center applications will be about US$300 million in 2025, detail Yole’s analysts in the silicon photonics report.

Further information: Yole Développement

Matthew Peach

This article was written
by Matthew Peach

Matthew Peach is a freelance technology journalist specialising in photonics and communications. He has previously worked for several business-to-business publishers, editing a range of high-tech magazines and websites.