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Among the many upgrades TSMC has recently introduced for its advanced packaging solutions, one crucial development seems to have evaded public attention, but it might just be TSMC’s attempt to fix its Achilles’ heel as competition with Intel intensifies.

Compact Universal Photonic Engine, or COUPE, has been introduced by TSMC as its latest heterogeneous integration technology designed for silicon photonic ASICS. According to TSMC’s research publication, COUPE is a compact and universal photo engine structure that can consolidate different requirements onto the same integration platform, addressing what TSMC deems as a fragmented market for silicon photonic integrated solutions. To be exact, COUPE allows further integration of silicon photonic ASICs with light engines.

In light of the growing number of sensors, and subsequently data, driven by the rise of Internet of Things (IoT), there has been an increasing demand on compute bandwidth, consequently stretching electrical connections linking processors, storage, and networking components to their limits. Enabling higher bandwidth, longer traveling distances, and protection against electromagnetic interference, optical solutions have gained popularity, replacing their electrical counterparts in data centers. Beyond their application in data centers as transceivers, however, optical pieces have a few disadvantages, especially being expensive in nature and taking up a large space.

It eventually led to the emergence of silicon photonics technology as a long-term solution. Combining silicon ICs and semiconductor lasers, silicon photonics offer a cheaper and more power-efficient alternative to traditional optical solution. Above all, it brings optical solutions down to the board and package level, and in the process extending Moore’s Law via overcoming the thermal issues caused by increasing the density of electrical components.

Currently, Intel is widely regarded as a pioneer of this technology, experimenting with silicon photonics as early as 2006, and it has ever since become a leader in this futuristic technology. In 2016, Intel’s current CEO Pat Gelsinger, then the company’s Vice President, declared that “Today, optics is a niche technology. Tomorrow, it’s the mainstream of every chip that we build.” The market research firm Yole estimated the size of global silicon photonics market in 2019 at US $480 million. In 2025, the market will grow to $3.9 billion, with data centre transceivers accounting for over 90% of the market.

With a 53% market share in data-center silicon photonic transceivers as of 2020, Intel is undoubtedly the leader in the field, and with a foundry-based photonic ecosystem soon taking shape, it can be Intel’s secret weapon against TSMC as it enters the foundry business under Gelsinger’s IDM 2.0 strategy.

Through its acquisition of Luxtera, a company specialized in silicon photonics, Cisco is another market leader in the field. TSMC already partnered with Luxtera in 2017 to build a through-silicon via (TSV)-enabled silicon photonics platform in TSMC’s 300mm CMOS fab, but to catch up with Intel, TSMC still has a long way to go.