Breaking the Size and Speed Limit of Modulators for Next Generation Internet and Communication Networks

On this illustrated silicon chip (grey), electrical data (white) travels through the Mach-Zehnder interferometer (MZI) based electro-optical modulators, encoding electrical data into the optical domain by means of tunable plasmonic ITO-based phase shifters (golden patches atop both MZI sections) capable of operating at multiple wavelengths of light in the telecommunication-relevant C-band (red & purple), thus enhancing the speed and efficiency of optical applications such as data transmission or neural networks for artificial intelligence.
Credit: Mario Miscuglio and Rubab Amin

Researchers developed and demonstrated for the first time a silicon-based electro-optical modulator that is smaller, as fast as and more efficient than state-of-the-art technologies. By adding indium tin oxide (ITO) – a transparent conductive oxide found in touchscreen displays and solar cells – to a silicon photonic chip platform, the researchers were able to create a compact device 1 micrometer in size and able to yield gigahertz-fast, or 1 billion times per second, signal modulation.

Electro-optical modulators are the workhorses of the internet. They convert electrical data from computers and smartphones to optical data streams for fiber optic networks, enabling modern data communications like video streaming. The new invention is timely since demand for data services is growing rapidly and moving towards next generation communication networks. Taking advantage of their compact footprint, electro-optic converters can be utilized as transducers in optical computing hardware such as optical artificial neural networks that mimic the human brain and a plethora of other applications for modern-day life.

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