Intel Behind $200M Photonics Competition?

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The US government did not call it a “silicon photonics contest.” Perhaps the federal funding for this new Institute for Manufacturing Innovation (IMI) would permit Intel and others to gradually shift to more of a generic term for its future development of chips that includes optics, but would not necessarily involve silicon. Actually, in a recent announcement, IBM implied that its new $3 billion, five-year plan for chip development, might not comprise Si photonics.

IMI is quite reminiscent of SEMATECH (SEmiconductor MAnufacturing TECHnology), incorporated in 1987, which became a not-for-profit consortium that included the US Department of Defense (DOD) as well as semiconductor suppliers and educational institutions. Its main purpose was to grab back leadership on market share with chips, which was taken away by Japanese companies. There seemed little doubt that early on, Intel was running that show.

Today, although the amount of money at stake is considerably less, the photonics integration grant again involves the DOD and similar types of entities to SEMATECH. Although there is the pretense of other countries leapfrogging the US on these next-generation chips, the likelihood of such an occurrence is highly questionable, and so, it appears more about the offering of political favors. The strong ties between Intel and the White House are hardly a secret.

In addition, just as was ultimately the case with the presence of SEMATECH, there would scarcely be any guarantees that in the long-term, jobs related to photonic integration would be prevented from going overseas with this latest program. Once any new technology became established, it is almost assuredly a forgone conclusion that production costs would be lower abroad. Of course, one would also have to assume that there would be no security concerns in the States.

It should also be noted that one of the introducers of the bill supporting the IMI is a representative from Corning, New York. The prominent optical company located in that town has been an active partner with Intel on these advanced photonic solutions.

In our next few blog articles, we will look at the utility of public-private partnerships relating to the development of optical gear.

[written by Mark Lutkowitz]