Shown is a scanning electron microscope (SEM) image magnifying the key structures of the graphene-based optical modulator. (Colors were added to enhance the contrast). Gold (Au) and platinum (Pt) electrodes are used to apply electrical charges to the sheet of graphene, shown in blue, placed on top of the silicon (Si) waveguide, shown in red. The voltage can control the graphene’s transparency, effectively turning the setup into an optical modulator that can turn light on and off. (Ming Liu image)
A team of researchers, led by UC Berkeley engineering professor Xiang Zhang, built a tiny optical device that uses graphene, a one-atom-thick layer of crystallized carbon, to switch light on and off. This switching ability is the fundamental characteristic of a network modulator, which controls the speed at which data packets are transmitted. The faster the data pulses are sent out, the greater the volume of information that can be sent. Graphene-based modulators could soon allow consumers to stream full-length, high-definition, 3-D movies onto a smartphone in a matter of seconds, the researchers said.
Graphene enables modulators that are incredibly compact and that potentially perform at speeds up to ten times faster than current technology allows. This new technology will significantly enhance our capabilities in ultrafast optical communication and computing. This is the world’s smallest optical modulator, and the modulator in data communications is the heart of speed control.
The researchers layered graphene on top of a silicon waveguide to fabricate optical modulators. The researchers were able to achieve a modulation speed of 1 gigahertz, but they noted that the speed could theoretically reach as high as 500 gigahertz for a single modulator.
Graphene-based modulators could overcome the space barrier of optical devices, the researchers said. They successfully shrunk a graphene-based optical modulator down to a relatively tiny 25 square microns, a size roughly 400 times smaller than a human hair. The footprint of a typical commercial modulator can be as large as a few square millimeters.
A graphene-based waveguide-integrated optical modulator.
Integrated optical modulators with high modulation speed, small footprint and large optical bandwidth are poised to be the enabling devices for on-chip optical interconnects. Semiconductor modulators have therefore been heavily researched over the past few years. However, the device footprint of silicon-based modulators is of the order of millimetres, owing to its weak electro-optical properties. Germanium and compound semiconductors, on the other hand, face the major challenge of integration with existing silicon electronics and photonics platforms. Integrating silicon modulators with high-quality-factor optical resonators increases the modulation strength, but these devices suffer from intrinsic narrow bandwidth and require sophisticated optical design; they also have stringent fabrication requirements and limited temperature tolerances7. Finding a complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS)-compatible material with adequate modulation speed and strength has therefore become a task of not only scientific interest, but also industrial importance. Here we experimentally demonstrate a broadband, high-speed, waveguide-integrated electroabsorption modulator based on monolayer graphene. By electrically tuning the Fermi level of the graphene sheet, we demonstrate modulation of the guided light at frequencies over 1 GHz, together with a broad operation spectrum that ranges from 1.35 to 1.6 µm under ambient conditions. The high modulation efficiency of graphene results in an active device area of merely 25 µm2, which is among the smallest to date. This graphene-based optical modulation mechanism, with combined advantages of compact footprint, low operation voltage and ultrafast modulation speed across a broad range of wavelengths, can enable novel architectures for on-chip optical communications.
While components based upon optics have many advantages over those that use electricity, including the ability to carry denser packets of data more quickly, attempts to create optical interconnects that fit neatly onto a computer chip have been hampered by the relatively large amount of space required in photonics.
Light waves are less agile in tight spaces than their electrical counterparts, the researchers noted, so photon-based applications have been primarily confined to large-scale devices, such as fiber optic lines.
“Electrons can easily make an L-shaped turn because the wavelengths in which they operate are small,” said Zhang. “Light wavelengths are generally bigger, so they need more space to maneuver. It’s like turning a long, stretch limo instead of a motorcycle around a corner. That’s why optics require bulky mirrors to control their movements. Scaling down the optical device also makes it faster because the single atomic layer of graphene can significantly reduce the capacitance – the ability to hold an electric charge – which often hinders device speed.”