Smart Semi Fiber Does It All

Release time:2017-04-18
source:EE time

A semiconducting-core optical-fiber may be able to perform the costly electrical-to-optical-to-electrial conversion passively within itself, rather than depending on expensive electronic-to-optical converters at the transmission end and expensive optical-to-electronic converters at the receivers end.

The invention combines an amorphous silicon core inside a 1.7-micron inner-diameter glass capillary capped at each end with a progression to single-crystal silicon, thus combining the inexpensive amorphous silicon-germanium for the long-run with short runs of single-crystal silicon at its ends. The research is being performed at Penn State (University Park) by Venkatraman Gopalan, professor of materials science and engineering, John Badding, professor of chemistry, physics, and materials science and engineering, along with Xiaoyu Ji, doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering.

Amorphous silicon core inside a 1.7-micron inner-diameter glass capillary. 
(Source: Penn State)

Dumb optical fibers used today merely transmit photons down a glass conduit surrounded by a tough flexible polymer coating. The optimal signals stay within the fiber by reflecting off the glass-to-polymer interfaces for nearly lossless transmissions over long distances. Unfortunately, all the data they convey comes from computers thereby requiring a costly electronics-to-photonics conversion module at the transmission end. Likewise, the receiver is an electronic computer requiring another costly photonics-to-electronics converter at the receiving end. To boot, extra long runs between cities require "repeaters" which use extra-sensitive photonics-to-electronics conversion, then electronic amplification, then extra-strong electronics-to-photonics converters to pass the optical signal to the next repeater (and finally to its destination).

The Penn State researchers hope to develop smart semiconductor-filled fibers with the ability to do the electronics-to-photonics-to-electronics conversions within the fibers itself. The team has not achieved that goal yet, but they have successfully combined all the materials they need into their semiconductor fibers and proven they can transmit both photons and electrons. Next they need to pattern the single-crystal silicon at each end of their fibers to perform the necessary opto-electronics (and visa versa) conversions on-the-fly.

Badding first demonstrated the feasibility using silicon-filled fibers in 2006, but Ji took on his doctoral task to combine high-purity amorphous silicon-germanium around a 1.7 micron glass capillary using a laser. The results are smart single-crystal silicon end caps that are 2000-times longer than they are thick, thus converting the efficiency of Badding's original prototype into a commercially feasible material.

Xiaoyu Ji, Ph.D. candidate in materials science at Penn State, tests his crystals at Argonne National Laboratory at its Advanced Photon Source. 
(Source: Penn State)

Such an ultra-small core allowed Ji to melt and refine the crystalline structures around the center glass core at just 750-to-900 degrees Fahrenheit (much lower than traditional glass-only fibers) by using a laser scanner, thus preventing the silicon from contaminating the glass.

Thus, it has taken more than 10 years to perfect the combination of smart semiconductors and dumb glass into the same opto-electronics fiber since Badding's first attempt.

Next the researchers will begin to optimize (to get its transmission speed and quality of its smart fiber to rival dumb glass-only fibers) as well as pattern the silicon-germanium for real applications, which will also include endoscopy, imaging and fiber lasers besides just communications.

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In its upcoming Mid-Year Update to The McClean Report 2018 (to be released at the end of July), IC Insights forecasts that the 2018 global electronic systems market will grow 5% to $1,622 billion while the worldwide semiconductor market is expected to surge by 14% this year to $509.1 billion, exceeding the $500.0 billion level for the first time.  If the 2018 forecasts come to fruition, the average semiconductor content in an electronic system will reach 31.4%, breaking the all-time record of 28.8% that was set in 2017 (Figure 1).Figure 1Historically, the driving force behind the higher average annual growth rate of the semiconductor industry as compared to the electronic systems market is the increasing value or content of semiconductors used in electronic systems.  With global unit shipments of cellphones (-1%), automobiles (3%), and PCs (-1%) forecast to be weak in 2018, the disparity between the moderate growth in the electronic systems market and high growth of the semiconductor market is directly due to the increasing content of semiconductors in electronic systems.While the trend of increasing semiconductor content has been evident for the past 30 years, the big jump in the average semiconductor content in electronic systems in 2018 is expected to be primarily due to the huge surge in DRAM and NAND flash ASPs and average electronic system sales growth this year. After slipping to 30.2% in 2020, the semiconductor content percentage is expected to climb to a new high of 31.5% in 2022.  IC Insights does not anticipate the percentage will fall below 30% any year through the forecast period.The trend of increasingly higher semiconductor value in electronic systems has a limit.  Extrapolating an annual increase in the percent semiconductor figure indefinitely would, at some point in the future, result in the semiconductor content of an electronic system reaching 100%.  Whatever the ultimate ceiling is, once it is reached, the average annual growth for the semiconductor industry will closely track that of the electronic systems market (i.e., about 4%-5% per year).
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