Silicon photonics innovation in Canada has its roots in a hands-on learning opportunity pioneered more than a decade ago by CMC Microsystems and a young professor at the University of British Columbia.
“In 2008, silicon photonics hadn’t hit the big time. Nobody had figured out how to make it work well enough yet,” explains Dr. Dan Deptuck, Staff Scientist in Optoelectronics, at CMC. “In those days we were struggling to find a training technology for students and we discovered we could get access to chip-making at an international foundry, at a very low price. In a discussion with Dr. Lukas Chrostowski about adding a photonics fabrication component to his laser course, I suggested silicon photonics.”
Chrostowski, then a new Assistant Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at UBC, seized the opportunity. “My motivation has always been to teach courses that have a practical component to them, such as an opportunity to design and test something,” he says.
Within weeks he, with colleague Dr. Nicolas Jaeger, had created the world’s first national, graduate-level course for designing, prototyping and testing nanophotonic integrated circuits. Later that year, with the help of Deptuck and IMEC, Europe’s largest independent research centre in nanoelectronics and nanotechnology, nearly a dozen students saw their designs transformed into real chips.
The timing was perfect: A year later, the course attracted its first industrial client, TeraXion, and as a result of that learning, the Quebec-based company was able to complete crucial R&D on a new product within a year, at considerable time- and cost-savings. “The course gave them insights into the potential and performance of silicon photonics, earlier than anyone else, and it became a big part of their business,” says Deptuck.
The impact on the students was even more profound. “What was unexpected for me was how quickly the students started publishing papers from their projects,” Chrostowski says.
Academic and industry participation grew and in 2012 NSERC awarded Chrostowski and a team of professors from multiple universities across Canada a six-year grant under its Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) Program —the SiEPIC program was designed to expand the course into a comprehensive program providing research training and industrial internships. Industrial fabrication from Singapore’s Advanced Micro Foundry—accessed through CMC’s fabrication service—continues to be a key part of this program.
‘What was unexpected for me was how quickly the students started publishing papers’
With additional NSERC and PROMPT funding, a consortium of over ten companies, CMC, and UBC, Laval, McGill and McMaster universities began an advanced rapid prototyping facility (SiEPICfab) in 2019 to support silicon photonics prototyping.
In all, more than 400 researchers and students across Canada’s National Design Network have strengthened Canada’s innovation track record in nanophotonic integrated circuits because of their SiEPIC training.
Companies, including multinationals Ciena, Celestica, Keysight, and Huawei Canada, have also benefited from hiring the highly trained graduates enabled by CMC, says Deptuck.
Today Chrostowski is excited about the future of silicon photonics in emerging areas such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, sensors, and quantum computing.
A big part of that excitement will be in seeing how his graduates go on to push the limits on the technology in industry. “Students are in very high demand. Those who graduate have their pick of 50 to 100 companies—the world is their oyster. It’s very satisfying to me.”
“I’m extremely grateful for CMC and professors across Canada who help deliver the program,” he adds. “It’s been wonderful to work together on something that has such a large impact.”
Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick/Photo Features