Optical Integration on PCBs: A Look at the Advancements
As copper reaches its speed limit, engineers look at optics to replace copper for very high-speed signals. Engineers also envisage replacing copper links between servers, routers and switches with active optical cables. Already silicon chips are available with some optical components inside. The next phase is for optics inside printed circuit boards (PCBs).
Why Optical Systems in PCBs
Electro-optical printed circuit boards combine optical and copper paths on the same board. While the copper paths distribute power and low-speed data, the optical paths handle the high-speed signals. This segregation has several advantages. At high frequencies, signal integrity suffers due to skin effect, crosstalk, and skew when passing through copper systems. Optical systems do not have those issues, while also presenting greater channel density than copper does. Moreover, as optical signals do not need signal conditioning and equalization, optical systems consume lower power than do electrical signals. Additionally, optical systems can reduce the surface area of a PCB by 20% and the number of layers on the board by 50%.
Optical Technology for PCBs
Designers and manufacturers are migrating optical technology to the backplane and connectors. Although optical technology has been around in the form of SFP and QSFP interfaces for some time now, engineers are now developing optical backplane connectors and optical backplanes. These also include optical transceivers at their connecting edges. Now, it is increasingly possible to have optics appear within a board, rather than limit its presence at the edges. Therefore, optics is now moving closer to the electrical signal source. That means the processor, fiber optic patch cords, and waveguides can now be found on the PCB.
Manufacturers have been successful in developing optical backplane connectors and included a technique to align small waveguides to onboard transceivers. The future challenge is to develop onboard waveguides so that performance is guaranteed even if there are tight bends in the board.
Manufacturing Optical PCBs
Engineers use photolithography and film processing techniques to fabricate flexible optical waveguides that will be able to move light around components onboard. According to technical information available, waveguides in the build will need walls at least 100 µm thick, and a bend radius less than 5 mm. These dimensions would allow designers to place the waveguide within connectors. This will also let light travel between a line-card and a backplane, without the necessity to convert it to an electrical signal.
PCB Manufacturers usually follow two different techniques when constructing the waveguides—non-contact mask lithography and direct laser writing. In non-contact mask lithography, spin coating applies the material to the substrate. However, as this process is more applicable to semiconductor manufacturing, lithography is better suited for small areas, and cannot be scaled up to handle large areas. Engineers use a process of draw-down coating for large areas, along with a doctor blade.
However, engineers faced two problems with the above process. One, the waveguide material would curl up, requiring 170 g of force to flatten. Second, there was the difficulty of the waveguide adhering to the substrate. Adhesion to the substrate is important so the waveguide would not crack during mechanical processes such as cutting the wafer or the substrate board.
It is important to have waveguides that do not attenuate the light too much as it travels through. Optical power measurements made with laser diodes as a source and a photodetector as the receiver indicate onboard waveguides introduce optical losses ranging from 0.046-0.050 dB/cm, even when the waveguides were bent to form two or three loops. Some signal loss is customary from wall roughness within the waveguide as well.
Optical Interconnects on PCBs
Onboard optical interconnects on PCBs can handle very high data rates and offer larger numbers of data channels than other electrical interconnections do. Moreover, as optical signal transmission is impervious to electromagnetic interference or EMI, it is suitable for mixed-signal systems such as data acquisition and signal processing where sensor applications need high accuracy of analog electronics.
Optical waveguides on PCBs require not only low attenuation but also a reliable manufacturing process for the optical layer. In an optical PCB, the fabrication steps and material properties of the waveguides need to be compatible with the manufacturing and assembly techniques prevalent in the PCB industry.
Apart from the optical path in an optical interconnection system, there must be coupling elements that can couple optical signals into and out of the waveguides. Moreover, common pick-and-place machines must be capable of suitably and automatically mounting these coupling elements without any active alignment between the optical waveguide and the coupling element. The use of structured polymer foils helps in this integration.
The main issues of using polymers are their thermal and mechanical stability against the process conditions during PCB fabrication. Additionally, with close coupling tolerances and imperfect positioning of waveguides within the PCB, mounting coupling elements often require active alignment. Engineers circumvent such problems in an optical PCB by using standard multimode glass fibers integrated within the layer stack. As glass fibers are highly stable both thermally as well as mechanically, PCB manufacturers can easily follow their proven processing steps for embedding the fibers into multilayer PCBs.
Moreover, the geometrical accuracy of glass fibers, apart from offering very low optical attenuation, is also very important for coupling methods. Engineers can passively align active optoelectronic components at the stubs of the fiber—the PCB has cutouts to make them accessible. A specific micromechanical alignment structure makes this passive alignment possible when combined with the optoelectronic chips—making mirrors and lenses unnecessary for coupling to the waveguides.
Optical Coupling Elements
For using coupling elements on the PCB, they must be compatible with the assembly and soldering processes manufacturers use. Primarily, the alignment structure should be able to withstand the temperatures involved. Precision molding in silicon molds can achieve this. Manufacturers typically use a temperature of 180°C and a duration of 90 minutes under a pressure of up to 15 bar for the lamination process when manufacturing multilayer boards. Soldering processes expose the board to temperatures exceeding 250°C. Optical waveguide polymers often show discoloring or decomposition at such temperatures. Engineers find glass fibers to be a suitable substance.
Glass fibers remain optically stable without any damage at the above temperatures. Additionally, being mechanically strong, glass fibers offer very low attenuation and exhibit very tight tolerances for their diameter. Rather than fixing the fibers on top of a readily processed conventional PCB, engineers embed them completely into the layer stack of optical printed circuit boards, between the top and bottom layers of the PCB using standard material such as FR4.
As against waveguides made from polymer foils, embedded glass fibers allow engineers to automatically align the optoelectronic transmitter and receiver components due to the accuracy of their contours. That makes it easy to develop optoelectronic coupling elements onboard, as they can align positively on the fiber using an advanced microstructure and achieve low coupling losses without requiring active position optimization.