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Innovative Plasma Chip: Electronic and Photonic Components Are Integrated on the Same Chip

New Requirements for Optical Communication Facilities

In modern cities such as Zurich, Switzerland, fibre-optic networks are already widely used for high-speed Internet, digital phones, television, and online video and audio streaming services. By 2030, however, these fiber optic networks are expected to reach their data speed limits.
With the emergence and rapid development of artificial intelligence and 5G networks, the demand for online streaming media, storage and computing services is growing across the market. Today, fiber optic networks transmit data at gigabits (109 bits) per second, with a limit of about 100 gigabits per channel and wavelength. However, in the future, transmission rate requirements will reach 1000 gigabits (1012 bits) per second.
The good news is that researchers at eth Zurich have developed an ultra-fast chip that can speed up data transmission in fibre optic networks. Researchers have successfully created a chip in the laboratory as part of the European Horizon 2020 research project. On the chip, fast electronic signals can be converted directly into ultra-fast optical signals with little mass loss. You know, scientists have been working on this for 20 years. The achievement represents a major breakthrough in the efficiency of optical communication infrastructure that uses light to transmit data, such as optical fiber networks.

Brand New Chip: Small Size, High Efficiency

"There is a growing demand for new solutions," says Juerg Leuthold, professor of photonics and communications at ETH Zurich. "The key to this research is the integration of electronic and photonic elements into a single chip."
Researchers at ETH Zurich have now accurately built this highly integrated chip. The chip can convert fast electronic signals directly into ultra-fast optical signals with little loss of signal quality. This is a major breakthrough for the efficiency of optical communications infrastructure, such as fiber optic networks, that USES light to transmit data. In an experiment with partners in Germany, the United States, Israel and Greece, they have for the first time been able to put electronic and photonic components on the same chip.
From a technical point of view, this is a huge step forward, explains Ueli Koch, a postdoctoral researcher on the research team and lead author of the paper. At present, these components must be made on individual chips and then wired together. On the one hand, it is expensive to make electronic and photonic chips separately; On the other hand, it impedes the ability to convert electrical signals into optical signals, thus limiting the transmission speed of optical fiber communication networks. The study was published in the journal Nature Electronics.

Plasma: The Magic Potion in Semiconductor Chips

"If you use a separate chip to convert an electronic signal into an optical signal, you lose a lot of signal quality, which limits the speed at which light can transmit data," says Koch. So he started with a modulator on a chip. Modulators, which convert electrical signals into optical signals of a certain intensity, must be as small as possible to avoid loss of quality and strength during the conversion process in order to transmit optical signals — that is, data — at a faster speed.
This highly integrated chip is achieved by placing two layers of electronic and photonic elements tightly together and connecting them directly to the chip through "on-chip holes". This layering of electronic and photonic elements shortens the transmission path and reduces the loss of signal quality. Because electrons and photons are integrated on a single substrate, the researchers call this approach "monolithic integration."
Juerg Leuthold says the size of the photon element makes it impossible to combine with the metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology commonly used in electronics today. For the past 20 years, the monolithic approach has been unsuccessful because photonic chips are much larger than electronic chips. This has also been a barrier to their integration.
Recently, however, researchers have found a breakthrough. For a decade, scientists have been testing plasmas, a branch of photonics that could provide the basis for ultrafast chips. In theory, a plasma can compress light waves into structures that are much smaller than the wavelength of light. Because plasma chips are smaller than electronic chips, it is now actually possible to make more compact, monolithic chips that contain layers of photons and electrons. In the experiment, the team first used a technique called 4:1 multiplexing to speed up and bind a single electrical signal to a larger size and higher speed, then used plasma to speed up and compress the optical signal to match the two. They also used a new thermostable optoelectronic material from the University of Washington, drawing on the experience of Horizon 2020's Insights PLASMOfab and plaCMOS. " We have now overcome the size difference between the photonic chip and the electronic chip and replaced the photon with a plasma," Leuthold said.
For the information age, the significance of this invention is immeasurable. Although the chip is still being tested and developed, it is believed that its existence will open a whole new era soon.

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