Xerox researchers develop 'breakthrough' optical MEMS technology

March 26, 2003--Xerox Corp. today unveiled what it claims is an industry breakthrough: the integration of an Optical Micro-Electromechanical System (MEMS) switch with planar light circuits on a single silicon chip small enough to fit on a fingertip.

March 26, 2003--Xerox Corp. today unveiled what it claims is an industry breakthrough: the integration of an Optical Micro-Electromechanical System (MEMS) switch with planar light circuits on a single silicon chip small enough to fit on a fingertip--a first ever achievement, say company representatives.

The new switch promises to provide rapid delivery of optical services by providing the functionality of a Reconfigurable Optical Add/Drop Multiplexer (ROADM), a routing device that's commonly used today but is 10 to 100 times as large and costly.

"Optical networks based on our technology could go way beyond delivering on-demand DVD-quality videos in homes," contends Joel Kubby, a technical manager at Xerox's Wilson Center for Research and Technology in Webster, NY. "Our switch could help usher in a new era of undreamed-of Internet applications, changing the way we do business, seek information and find entertainment," he adds.

Today's optical networking equipment must switch from the optical to the electronic domain. Xerox's technology enables switching in the all-optical domain. Because it controls the flow of light rather than the flow of electrons, it is ultimately faster, smaller, and cheaper, says the company.

"With the Xerox switch, an entire ROADM can be compressed into 2 cm x 1.5 cm in size and can direct enormous amounts of data in ways that currently require large racks of assembled equipment," Kubby explains. "Our technology would let telecommunications companies install systems locally and even on utility poles."

Waveguides are very small conductors of light, about 5 to 6 microns or 1/10 the thickness of a human hair. The Xerox MEMS waveguide shuttle acts like a miniature train track switch for the fine waveguides, avoiding the problems of earlier, mirror-based MEMS switches.

The MEMS switches and waveguides are made together on a single crystal silicon wafer using widely available semiconductor processing equipment. Such on-chip integration avoids the complex alignment issues associated with manually connecting different and larger components with optical fibers and avoids the cost and space associated with manufacturing, assembling, and packaging the separate components of Add/Drop Multiplexers.

In addition, the new technology eliminates the need for technicians to make routing changes in the field, ultimately bringing bandwidth to consumers faster.

Kubby has created a working prototype 8-channel ROADM. Xerox intends to commercialize this technology through licensing to leading companies in the optical switching market.

The new optical switch technology builds on a broadly enabling MEMS fabrication platform developed under a grant provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in its Advanced Technology Program. Xerox is the lead partner in the Optical MEMS Manufacturing Consortium, and Kubby is the principal investigator for the consortium's project. Other partners include Palo Alto Research Center, a subsidiary of Xerox; Corning IntelliSense, a MEMS foundry and software company; Microscan, a data acquisition firm; and Coventor, a MEMS software company. They are tasked with developing a manufacturing process for Optical MEMS, which can be used broadly.

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