A technological revolution is coming: will we be ready?

A photonic chip, like an electronic chip, but instead of being filled with electricity, it's filled with light.

This article was originally published in The Australian and New Zealand Optical Society (ANZOS) May Newsletter.


We are on the cusp of a revolution in the semiconductor industry 

Integrated electronic chips are everywhere – from our computers and smart phones to our washing machines and cars. They are tiny, reliable and often very energy efficient. They do all this while being mind-bogglingly complex on the inside, yet remain cheap and accessible to just about everyone. In short, they are the basis of the most sophisticated industry we have ever known.   

Integrated photonic chips – those that use light instead of electricity – have been researched for decades with the hope that we could achieve the same benefits for optical systems. For some time now, these have been scientifically and technologically feasible. However, while there are many important applications for photonic chips, no single application has needed them so badly to justify the massive investment to make them an industrial reality.  

Until now.  

A new era: Electronics and photonics made to work together 

The internet is continuing to grow exponentially and now every user of the internet is demanding access to AI tools. This is putting enormous pressure on our data centres. The electronic chips are keeping pace – growing exponentially in complexity and capacity on the inside – but using traditional wires to get information into and out of the chips is too slow and inefficient. The only way to interface the next generation of electronic chips is with light. For this reason, the electronics industry is finally taking photonics seriously. Electronics needs photonics to keep growing.  

Over the last year, companies like Intel and Cisco have begun working with mainstream manufacturers like Global Foundries to make chips with both photonics and electronics on them. These hybrid integrated photonic/electronic chips are just hitting the market.  

We are on the cusp of a revolution in the semiconductor industry – low-cost, complex photonic systems that can be mass-manufactured are coming. But could they do more than just act as gateways to connect electronics to the outside world? What other opportunities could photonic chips unlock?  

Unlocking the world’s most precise measurement tool for real-world applications 

If there was a global manufacturing pipeline for photonic chips, we could realise low-cost and readily accessible optical systems that enable self-driving cars to see, help drones navigate and even check if fruit is ripe before harvesting.  

We believe that one particular transformational opportunity for photonic chips lies in the optical frequency comb.  

The optical frequency comb, the most precise measurement tool ever created, is poised to have a significant impact in various fields. This device was invented about 20 years ago and enabled highly accurate measurement of laser light frequency, surpassing electronic methods by many orders of magnitude. This breakthrough has led to significant advancements, including precise timing, mapping and navigation, and the search for Earth-like planets around sun-like stars. 

But its potential still hasn’t been fully realised. 

Despite being an extraordinary scientific instrument, the optical frequency comb’s real-world impact has been limited by its size, complexity and cost. This is because each comb is a complex system requiring a vast array of different optical components and highly sophisticated analogue and digital electronics – typically the size of a suitcase and with a six-figure price tag. 

The optical frequency comb (the world’s most precise measurement tool) remains too bulky, complex and expensive to be accessible for real-world applications. (Our COMBS Science Communicator Rachael Vorwerk is here for scale!).

Making the world’s most accurate measurement tool accessible to all  

The coming photonic chip revolution presents a solution. It will soon be possible to integrate all the elements of an optical frequency comb onto a single chip, including the photonics, analogue and digital electronics. And it will be done in a way that can scale to low-cost mass manufacture.  

These integrated optical frequency combs – called microcombs – will put precision measurement systems in the hands of almost everyone – in a form factor similar to that of a mobile phone. 

By leading the way in exploring the potential of photonic chip microcombs, we can ride this wave to achieve scientific breakthroughs and lay the foundation for new tech industries in Australia and New Zealand with global reach.  

What new technologies might be possible with such ubiquitous precision? Our Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Optical Microcombs for Breakthrough Science (COMBS) is on a quest to find out!    

Stay in touch 

We will be contributing regularly to ANZOS News with stories showing the capabilities and potential of microcombs spanning an extraordinary range of end-use scenarios. We look forward to sharing our progress with you.  

We are building our Centre, and are currently hiring both Postdocs and PhD students. Follow us on LinkedIn to see our latest available positions. 


The Australian and New Zealand Optical Society (ANZOS) is a non-profit organisation for the advancement of optics in Australia and New Zealand. Consider joining the society here https://optics.org.au/join-us

Our team at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Optical Microcombs for Breakthrough Science (COMBS), aiming to make optical frequency comb technology as cheap, readily available and accessible as today’s consumer electronics.