Aeponyx: Optical Chips For Telecom

New company seeks to cut cost of optical switch by 10X, improve performance by 100X.

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As the amount of data grows, so does interest in silicon photonics. There is no better way to move data than with light. It’s faster, requires less energy, and generates less heat.

The main trouble spots come in two places—packaging the light source with another chip, and the switching technology from optical to electrical and back to optical. While companies like Intel have been working on the packaging process, the switching piece has received far less attention from established players.

Enter Aeponyx, a fabless chip company based in Montreal. The company’s focus is on optical switches that can be tuned dynamically to handle huge amounts of data by combining MEMS and silicon photonics.

“With a micro-optical switch, you can take the cost down 10 times, speed up data by 100 times, and it can all be done in a package that is 7 times smaller than existing switches,” said Philippe Babin, president of Aeponyx. “To make this possible we had to build a platform so that we could build a micro-optical switch. The way we solved that was to use planar MEMS with silicon photonics. We start with an industrial process on MEMS and create waveguides and filters. They we build a switch, which can be added as a standalone device or be used inside a transceiver.”

Babin believes this technology will become critical as 5G begins to roll out over the next few years.

There is widespread agreement that 5G will be required to move huge quantities of data around for the IoT, high-definition video and imaging, and autonomous driving. But the infrastructure for 5G will be expensive because the technology operates at a much higher frequency than 4G LTE, so signals will be absorbed by buildings, people, trees, and just about anything standing in the way. The solution, at least at this point, is a much denser infrastructure, and that has set off a scramble among startups to develop a low cost solution that could be sold in huge volumes.

Aeponyx’s approach is to make these switches tunable, both for receiving signals and transmitting them, based on a silicon on insulator substrate with a hybrid integration scheme for packaging photonics with a MEMS chip. The technology supports the next-generation passive optical 2 standard (NG-PON2) and wavelength division multiplexing PON, or WDM-PON. WDM-PON uses one wavelength for downstream traffic and another for upstream traffic over single-mode fiber.

Aeponyx was started with a $1.9 million grant from Canada’s Sustainable Development Technology fund last year. It also has been working with Silicon Catalyst, a Silicon Valley-based incubator/accelerator that was created in 2015.