Sun team wins $44-million optical interconnect grant from Defense Department

A team lead by Sun Microsystems has won a $44.29-million, five and a half-year research grant "focused on microchip interconnectivity via on-chip optical networks enabled by silicon photonics and proximity communication." According to the New York Times Sun's team includes silicon photonics startups Luxtera and Kotura. (Sun's own press release doesn't mention either of those firms. Nice.) According to the Times, the Sun team beat out a joint proposal from Intel and HP, as well as proposals from IBM and MIT.

The money comes from a program called Ultraperformance Nanophotonic Intrachip Communications (UNIC. Really. Didn't anyone at Darpa try to pronounce this before they came up with the program name?). Darapa's site has updated UNIC's status from solicitation to program so don't bother looking in the program section under UNIC (ugh).

In Sun's press release the Darpa program manager described the goals like so: "DARPA's UNIC (Ultraperformance Nanophotonic Intrachip Communications) program will demonstrate high performance photonic technology for high bandwidth, on-chip, photonic communications networks for advanced (â'¥ 10 trillion operations/second) microprocessors. By restoring the balance between computation and communications, the program will significantly enhance DoD's capabilities for applications such as Image Processing, Autonomous Operations, Synthetic Aperture Radar, as well as supercomputing." That was a mouthful.

It's interesting to note that nowhere in Darpa's solicitation (even in the long form--I checked) is the word "proximity" used. Sun has made much in the past of its (still not commercial) technology that allows two chips placed next to each other to communicate via inductive coupling. We covered it back in 2003, but I'm afraid we haven't gotten that far in our archival postings; so no link, sorry.

Anyhow, a casual glance at the teams makes me think that it was really Intel vs. Luxtera the whole time. I think it's been that way all along. Every time Intel had some great breaktrhough, such as back in 2005 when Intel managed to make a silicon laser (but one that needs input from another laser to work). Luxtera has had some "anything you can do I can to do better" come back.

Intel was kind enough to lay down its vision of silicon photonics a couple of years ago. Anyone wanting to understand all the components you'd need for a working silicon photonics system should check out that link. It'll make a lot more sense than Sun's press release (which wasn't bad, really).

Intel has long appeared to be in the camp of folks who think an electrically pumped silicon laser is pointless to pursue. As demonstration they later with a UC Santa Barbara team, pioneered a way of making said "other laser" by bonding an indium phosphide light source to a silicon structure. I think Luxtera is in that camp as well; so perhaps Darpa wasn't keen on throwing more money at that problem too.

By the way, there's gobs of research about bonding exotic semiconductors to silicon being reported this week at the Materials Research Society's spring meeting. We'd hoped to have a story about that for this, week, but in light of the DoD grant, I think we're going to refocus the story. Look for it later this week or early next week.

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