Sandia LabNews

New Sandia vertical cavity surface emitting laser promises to reduce cost of fiber optics connections

CRADA with Cielo Communications makes development possible

[Molecular Beam Epitaxy]
CRYSTAL GROWTH — Sandia researcher John Klem (1742) studies notes next to the molecular beam epitaxy system used to grow the crystal structure of the 1.3-micron communications vertical cavity surface emitting laser (VCSEL). The laser will meet the needs of future high-speed fiber optics connections. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Sandia researchers have developed the first 1.3-micron electrically pumped vertical cavity surface emitting laser (VCSEL) grown on gallium arsenide. It promises to reduce the cost of high-speed fiber optics connections.

Working through a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with Cielo Communications, Inc., Sandia developed the 1.3-micron communications VCSEL, which will be cheaper and easier to build than standard edge-emitting lasers used in current high-speed communications.

"This VCSEL will meet the needs of high-speed fiber optics connections of the future," says Peter Esherick, Manager of Compound Semiconductor Materials and Processes Dept. 1711. "We expect there to be great excitement over the device — fueled by the rapid expansion of Internet use and craving for faster Internet access."

The new 1.3-micron VCSEL is made from stacks of layers of semiconductor materials common in shorter wavelength lasers — mostly aluminum gallium arsenide and gallium arsenide. The Sandia team added to this structure a small amount of the new material indium gallium arsenide nitride (InGaAsN), which was developed by Hitachi of Japan in the mid-1990s. The InGaAsN causes the VCSEL’s operating wavelength to fall into a range that makes it usable in high-speed Internet connections.

Peter says laboratories around the world have been in a "horserace to be the first with the 1.3-micron VCSEL on gallium arsenide substrates." Cielo teamed with Sandia through a CRADA last year to research several compound semiconductor alloys in an effort to find the one that achieved the 1.3-micron goal. In May Sandia researchers came up with a materials combination and materials growth technique that hit the target. The research findings were submitted June 1 to Electronic Letters for publication.

The laser is the light source that transmits information down optical fibers. Two types of semiconductor lasers are used in high-speed data and telecommunications fiber optics — the edge emitter and the VCSEL. In the edge emitter, which has traditionally dominated the semiconductor laser market, photons are emitted out of one edge of the semiconductor wafer after rebounding off mirrors that have been literally cleaved out of the crystalline substrate. In the VCSEL, laser photons bounce between mirrors grown into the structure and then emit vertically from the wafer surface. VCSELs, which are grown by the thousands on a single wafer, have significant advantages over edge-emitting lasers in the areas of lower manufacturing, packaging, alignment, and testing costs, as well as lower power dissipation and higher reliability.

VCSELs made of combinations of aluminum gallium arsenide and gallium arsenide have been used in the shorter wavelength window of 850 nanometers for local connections. However, because none existed that could work in the 1.3-micron window required for high-speed, long-distance communications, the optical networking industry turned to the more expensive and complicated edge-emitting lasers. Sandia researchers successfully built an edge emitter using InGaAsN early this year, enabling them to characterize the material’s properties and quality (Lab News, Feb. 25). They now have gone to the next step with development of the first InGaAsN VCSEL.

"The key to making this work was to optimize the material quality of the InGaAsN and to make subtle changes to the rest of the structure," says John Klem (1742), Sandia researcher working on the VCSEL project. "Once we had the high quality InGaAsN in hand, our extensive experience with shorter wavelength VCSELs allowed us to quickly produce the full 1.3-micron device."

Other team members include Kent Choquette, Art Fischer, Andy Allerman, Ian Fritz, Steve Kurtz, Rob Sieg, and Kent Geib (all 1742), Olga Blum Spahn (1743), and Bill Breiland (1126) from Sandia and Jeff Scott and Ryan Naone from Cielo. Peter says in addition to the obvious benefits of 1.3-micron VCSELs for the civilian telecommunication markets, there are equally important benefits for DOE’s defense applications. "What’s exciting for us is that the 1.3-micron light can be transmitted through silicon — the silicon is transparent at that wavelength," he says. "The additional flexibility that this offers for integrating photonic devices with silicon-based microsystems will have significant implications for national security systems."

Last modified: June 16, 2000