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Project Brief

Open Competition 3 - Electronics and Photonics

Phase Change Optical Routers

Develop advanced Ovonic TM phase change materials and use them to create a fast optical switch for telecommunications--offering submicrosecond switching speeds--so fast that optical packet switching could become viable, eliminating the very costly, repetitive, and slow conversion of fiber optic light signals to and from electronic signals.

Sponsor: Energy Conversion Devices, Inc.

2956 Waterview Drive
Rochester Hills, MI 48309
  • Project Performance Period: 10/1/2003 - 9/30/2006
  • Total project (est.): $3,257,157.00
  • Requested ATP funds: $1,972,246.00

In this three-year project, Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) proposes to make optical switches that perform at sub-microsecond switching speeds, or about 10,000 times faster than today's optomechanical versions. Such devices would make optical packet switching viable, eliminating a costly bottleneck in fiber-optic telecommunication networks--the need to convert light signals to and from electronic signals. To develop the technology, the company intends to harness the special properties of Ovonic TM phase change (PC) materials--those that undergo reversible changes in atomic structure in response to an applied optical or electric signal. PC materials, which transform almost instantaneously, are key components of rewritable compact disks, digital video disks, semiconductor memories, and other products. ECD, a pioneer in the field, believes that PC materials also are well suited to handle light signals. Realizing this potential, however, will require re-engineering the composition of the company's current PC materials which were developed for data storage applications. Besides overcoming materials-engineering challenges, ECD also must design and develop novel devices that exploit the new materials' properties and that can be integrated into optical-fiber networks. ECD intends to build two types of devices that can work independently or in combination. The first is a programmable phase angle mirror that does broadband switching by steering light beams and routing optical packets on to their ultimate destinations. The second is a photonic crystal that would switch, route, and filter optical packets in networks using so-called wavelength division multiplexing (WDM). Today, optical switches are used for circuit switching--like setting up a telephone call. But current optical switches are far too slow to permit packet switching on the Internet and private information networks, even though the systems use fiber-optic "pipes" for backbone communications. Modern optical communications signals still go though many expensive conversions, a process referred to as optical-electrical-optical (OEO) conversions. Staying all optical (OOO) would slash network costs and allow much faster network connections for end-users at low cost. It also may provide a solution to the "last mile" problem--bringing affordable broadband to the home. Because of the slowdown in telecommunications markets, the potential partners in developing ECD's proposed optical switching technology have shortened their planning horizons and have become more risk averse. ATP funding will help the company overcome technical challenges and reduce the time to commercialization.

For project information:
Ghazaleh Koefod, (248) 293-0440

ATP Project Manager
Carlos Grinspon, (301) 975-4448

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