High-Speed Optics Era: Lithium Tantalate Revolutionizes Photonic Circuits

By Xavier Roxy

May 25, 2024


Lausanne, Switzerland: In the rapidly evolving world of high-speed optical communications, a critical bottleneck has been the cost and scalability of specialized materials used to create photonic integrated circuits (PICs). These tiny chips use light instead of electricity to transmit data, enabling blazing-fast internet speeds and powerful computing capabilities. Researchers from Switzerland and China have developed a groundbreaking solution using an often-overlooked material: lithium tantalate. 
PICs are integral components in the digital age. They form the backbone of fiber-optic networks that provide high-speed internet for various applications, such as streaming video services and cloud computing. Moreover, they play pivotal roles in advanced applications like quantum computing and artificial intelligence. 
Traditionally, PICs have been produced using lithium niobate due to its unique property called the Pockels effect, which efficiently converts electrical signals into light and vice versa. Despite these remarkable features, lithium niobate is expensive and difficult to manufacture at scale. 
However, there's another promising alternative: lithium tantalate. It shares an almost identical crystal structure with lithium niobate but possesses one significant advantage: it's already being mass-produced for use in 5G wireless filters, which makes its manufacturing process cost-effective. 
Pioneered by Dr. Tobias J. Kohlenberg from EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) along with Dr. Xin Ou from SIMIT (Shanghai Institute of Microsystems and Information Technology), this innovative research aimed at utilizing lithium tantalite’s economic benefits while maintaining performance standards similar to those offered by lithium niobiate. 
The first step involved creating thin films of lithium tantalite on insulator substrates through a “smart-cut” process where hydrogen ions were implanted into a wafer, followed by heating until hydrogen expanded, slicing off thin layers that were then polished down to desired thicknesses of around 600 nanometers. 
Next was etching these films into the intricate patterns required for PICs. A process previously developed for lithium niobate was adapted, using a hard mask made of diamond-like carbon to create smooth, low-loss optical waveguides that guide light through the PIC. 
The researchers also needed to equip these structures with electrodes to control light flow. They innovated again by developing a deep-ultraviolet lithography process that could create high-quality gold electrodes with precise alignment. 
Published in Nature, their results were nothing short of impressive. The Lithium Tantalite on Insulator (LTOI) PICs demonstrated exceptionally low optical losses as well as high-speed electro-optic modulation comparable to state-of-the-art lithium niobate devices. 
Interestingly, it was found that LTOI had some unique advantages over its counterpart, such as lower birefringence, which can cause unwanted mixing of light polarizations, and suitability for generating'soliton 'microcombs'—ultra'-precise frequency combs promising higher data rates in the future. 
Chengli Wang, the study's first author, stated, "These soliton microcombs feature a large number of coherent frequencies and are particularly suitable for applications such as parallel coherent LiDAR and photonic computing." 
This innovation promises far-reaching consequences, from making high-speed optical communications more accessible and affordable due to cost-effective manufacturing processes leveraging existing infrastructure for lithium tantalite production to benefiting long-haul networks, data centers, and 5G wireless applications to enabling new capabilities in quantum computing due to its ability to precisely control photons, amongst others. 
This breakthrough signifies how materials science combined with innovative manufacturing techniques can drive transformative progress in technology. By utilizing an overlooked material like lithium tantalite, these researchers have opened up new possibilities in high-speed optics, illuminating our future with the power of light on a chip.


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