U.S. Military Puts Up $110 Million to Fund Photonic Integrated Circuits Competition

The U.S. government is backing the next generation of photonics technology for higher-speed Internet and mobile computing

2 min read
U.S. Military Puts Up $110 Million to Fund Photonic Integrated Circuits Competition
Photo: John Madere/Corbis

Today’s Internet relies upon a backbone of photonics technology that uses light to transmit, store, process, and display all the digital information that ends up in front of your eyes. A new generation of photonic integrated circuits—which would be used in everything from smartphones to medical devices—could boost the speed of data transmission among and within these devices. And it’s predicted that these photonic circuits will shrink considerably, allowing the gadgets that contain them to get progressively smaller. That’s why the U.S. government has launched a new initiative that will award more than $100 million to spur the ramping up of domestic manufacturing of photonic integrated circuits.

The U.S. Department of Defense is heading the effort, which will disburse up to $110 million in federal funding via an Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Institute. The five-year commitment also requires matching funding of $110 million from private sources to cover its operational costs. Last Friday, President Obama announced that the new initiative would be the latest Institute for Manufacturing Innovation launched by his administration. The aim is to enable the creation of an end-to-end photonics “ecosystem” in the United States that covers every part of the manufacturing process.

Today’s integrated photonics are packaged from individual components made separately. But the photonic integrated circuits researchers envision (built entirely in a single package) hold the promise of simplifying design and manufacturing in a way yields smaller dimensions and lower power consumption.

The Department of Defense expects photonic integrated circuits to eventually help lower the costs of high-speed Internet access and boost the efficiency of telecommunications networks within cities and across long distances, says DoD News. For instance, future data centers would use less power per bit for speeds of 100 gigabits per second than today’s technologies use in transmitting 10 gigabits per secondleading to a potential energy savings of millions of dollars per year.

The average consumer would enjoy more benefits than just improved Internet speeds and access. Reductions in size, weight, and power for photonics technology in electronics could also enable new generations of embedded computing in mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Such technology could also lead to a “several-fold increase” in the dynamic range of biomedical detectors, DOD News reported. That would enable such detectors to peer through human tissue and boost detection of certain diseases.

Finally, light-manipulating circuits may boost the ability to see through dust clouds kicked up by the rotors of helicopters during landingsa problem that has led to crashes and deaths in the past.

Officials expect to announce the recipient(s) of the $110 million award sometime early next summer. The Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Institute would then have five years to reach a self-sustaining point where it no longer requires federal funding.

Past examples of winners for U.S. Institute for Manufacturing Innovation competitions include broad consortia of universities and companies focused on areas such as 3-D printing and modern metals manufacturing.

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Carl De Torres
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When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in early 2020, the world made an unprecedented shift to remote work. As a precaution, some Internet providers scaled back service levels temporarily, although that probably wasn’t necessary for countries in Asia, Europe, and North America, which were generally able to cope with the surge in demand caused by people teleworking (and binge-watching Netflix). That’s because most of their networks were overprovisioned, with more capacity than they usually need. But in countries without the same level of investment in network infrastructure, the picture was less rosy: Internet service providers (ISPs) in South Africa and Venezuela, for instance, reported significant strain.

But is overprovisioning the only way to ensure resilience? We don’t think so. To understand the alternative approach we’re championing, though, you first need to recall how the Internet works.

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