Encyclopedia … combined with a great Buyer's Guide!

Photonic Integrated Circuits

Acronym: PIC or PLC = planar lightwave circuit

Definition: integrated circuits with optical functions

Alternative term: planar lightwave circuits

German: photonische integrierte Schaltungen

Categories: photonic devicesphotonic devices, optoelectronicsoptoelectronics, lightwave communicationslightwave communications


Cite the article using its DOI: https://doi.org/10.61835/9kc

Get citation code: Endnote (RIS) BibTex plain textHTML

Photonic integrated circuits (also called planar lightwave circuits = PLC or integrated optoelectronic devices) are devices on which several or even many optical (and often also electronic) components are integrated. The technology of such devices is called integrated optics. Photonic integrated circuits are usually fabricated with a wafer-scale technology (involving lithography) on substrates (often called chips) of silicon, silica, or a nonlinear crystal material such as lithium niobate (LiNbO3). The substrate material already determines a number of features and limitations of the technology:

  • Silica-on-silicon integrated optics builds on silicon wafers, for which many aspects of the powerful microelectronics technology can be used. Silica waveguides allow the realization of couplers, filters (e.g. for multiplexers and demultiplexers in wavelength division multiplexing technology), power splitters and combiners, and even active elements with optical gain. They can also be connected to optical fibers. A natural solution for coupling multiple waveguides is to use fiber arrays.
  • An area of strong current interest is silicon photonics, where photonic functions are implemented directly on silicon chips.
  • An already commercialized photonic integrated circuits technology is based on indium phosphide (InP); it is used mainly in optical fiber communications.
  • The relatively new silicon nitride (Si3N4) platform is suitable for photonic devices operating in the 1-μm spectral region or even at shorter wavelengths. Low-loss waveguides with small bend radius can be made, also various types of photonic components such as couplers, filters, arrayed waveguide gratings and others. The high nonlinear coefficient gives the potential for nonlinear signal processing.
  • Waveguides can be fabricated on silica glass (fused silica) e.g. with lithographic techniques involving chemical processing or indiffusion of dopants, or with laser micromachining. The latter techniques can be used for fabricating waveguides far below the surface (embedded waveguides), so that three-dimensional circuit designs become possible. Amplifiers and lasers can be made by using rare-earth-doped glasses.
  • Lithium niobate (LiNbO3) as a nonlinear crystal material is suitable for devices performing nonlinear functions, for example electro-optic modulators or acousto-optic transducers. Waveguides can be fabricated on lithium niobate substrates e.g. via proton exchange or by indiffusion of titanium, in any case controlled by a lithographic method. Doping with rare earth ions makes possible amplifiers and lasers. The birefringence of this material creates opportunities for polarization control, which may then be used e.g. for filtering purposes. On the other hand, the birefringence makes it more difficult to obtain polarization-independent devices, as are often required for optical fiber communications.

Photonic integrated circuits can either host large arrays of identical components, or contain complex circuit configurations. However, for various reasons the complexity achievable is not nearly as high as for electronic integrated circuits. Their main application is in the area of optical fiber communications, particularly in fiber-optic networks, but they can also be used for, e.g., optical sensors and in metrology.

An important distinction is that between devices with smaller or larger mode areas:

  • Some waveguides (e.g. made in silicon-on-insulator technology) exhibit strong confinement, leading to small effective mode areas and allowing for tight bends without excessive bend losses. They are therefore potentially suitable for chips with a very high level of integration. However, such devices are essentially always polarization dependent, having a strong built-it birefringence. Polarization-insensitive designs would be possible in principle, but would introduce unrealistic fabrication tolerances.
  • Other waveguides exhibit much weaker guidance and can be made in polarization-insensitive form. However, such waveguides do not allow tight bends and thus prevent a high level of integration.

Application Areas

Photonic integrated circuits can find applications in different area; some examples:

Very often, photonic integrated circuits are specially designed and fabricated for a specific application. They may then be called ASPIC = application-specific photonic integrated circuits.

Fabrication in Foundries

In microelectronics, the model of foundries has been widely accepted. This means a separation between a company designing and later selling an integrated circuit for a specific purpose and another company (the foundry) for fabricating it. Only the foundry needs to have the complex machinery and detailed know-how for fabrication.

The same model is also suitable for photonic integrated circuits. Again, a complex technology is required, which is mastered by some foundries, and their customers can focus on designing circuits for specific purposes and bringing those into the markets. A suitable interface needs to be developed, where the foundry exactly describes its capabilities and receives the designs to be fabricated. For the designs, certain elements (e.g. for realizing certain device functions like waveguides, couplers, resonators, modulators, photodetectors etc.) may already be predefined and can be appropriately connected by the circuits designer. The foundry may fabricate bare chips or possibly also offer packaging solutions.

A foundry may support different technology platforms, such as indium phosphide (InP), gallium arsenide (GaAs), silicon on insulator (SOI), silica on silicon, etc. Note that these can substantially differ in technical details of the required machinery. It can also be important to over the combination with other technologies such as micro-electronics and micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS).

More to Learn

Encyclopedia articles:


The RP Photonics Buyer's Guide contains 18 suppliers for photonic integrated circuits. Among them:


[1]K. Minoshima et al., “Photonic device fabrication in glass by use of nonlinear materials processing with a femtosecond laser oscillator”, Opt. Lett. 26 (19), 1516 (2001); https://doi.org/10.1364/OL.26.001516
[2]C. Florea and K. A. Winick, “Fabrication and characterization of photonic devices directly written in glass using femtosecond laser pulses”, J. Lightwave Technol. 21 (1), 246 (2003); https://doi.org/10.1109/JLT.2003.808678
[3]S. Nolte et al., “Femtosecond waveguide writing: A new avenue to three-dimensional integrated optics”, Appl. Phys. A 77, 109 (2003); https://doi.org/10.1007/s00339-003-2088-6
[4]A. M. Kowalevicz et al., “Three-dimensional photonic devices fabricated in glass by use of a femtosecond laser oscillator”, Opt. Lett. 30 (9), 1060 (2005); https://doi.org/10.1364/OL.30.001060
[5]F. A. Kish et al., “Current status of large-scale InP photonic integrated circuits”, IEEE Sel. Top. Quantum Electron. 17 (6), 1470 (2011); https://doi.org/10.1109/JSTQE.2011.2114873
[6]W. S. Zaoui et al., “Bridging the gap between optical fibers and silicon photonic integrated circuits”, Opt. Express 22 (2), 1277 (2014); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.22.001277
[7]L. Li, “Integrated flexible chalcogenide glass photonic devices”, Nature Photon. 8, 643 (2014); https://doi.org/10.1038/nphoton.2014.138
[8]D. T. Spencer et al., “An optical-frequency synthesizer using integrated photonics”, Nature 557, 81 (2018); https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0065-7
[9]D. Pérez et al., “Principles, fundamentals, and applications of programmable integrated photonics”, Advances in Optics and Photonics 12 (3), 709 (2020); https://doi.org/10.1364/AOP.387155
[10]X. Hu et al., “Si3N4 photonic integration platform at 1 µm for optical interconnects”, Opt. Express 28 (9), 13019 (2020); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.386494
[11]D. Zhu et al., “Integrated photonics on thin-film lithium niobate” (review paper), Advances in Optics and Photonics 13 (2), 242 (2021); https://doi.org/10.1364/AOP.411024
[12]J. Milvich et al., “Integrated phase-sensitive photonic sensors: a system design tutorial”, Adv. in Optics and Photonics 13 (3), 584 (2021); https://doi.org/10.1364/AOP.413399
[13]C. Op de Beeck et al., “III/V-on-lithium niobate amplifiers and lasers”, Optica 8 (10), 1288 (2021); https://doi.org/10.1364/OPTICA.438620
[14]Y. Wang et al., “Photonic-circuit-integrated titanium:sapphire laser”, Nature Photonics 17, 338 (2023); https://doi.org/10.1038/s41566-022-01144-2
[15]H. Mahmudlu et al., “Fully on-chip photonic turnkey quantum source for entangled qubit/qudit state generation”, Nature Photonics 17, 518 (2023); https://doi.org/10.1038/s41566-023-01193-1
[16]Di Zhu et al., “Integrated photonics on thin-film lithium niobate”, Advances in Optics and Photonics 13 (2), 242 (2021); https://doi.org/10.1364/AOP.411024
[17]J. Wang et al., “Toward photonic–electronic convergence based on heterogeneous platform of merging lithium niobate into silicon”, J. Opt. Soc. Am. B 40 (6), 1573 (2023); https://doi.org/10.1364/JOSAB.484460
[18]Xu Han et al., “Integrated photonics on the dielectrically loaded lithium niobate on insulator platform”, J. Opt. Soc. Am. B 40 (5), D26 (2023); https://doi.org/10.1364/JOSAB.482507
[19]L. A. Coldren and S. W. Corzine, Diode Lasers and Photonic Integrated Circuits, John Wiley & Sons, New York (1995)

(Suggest additional literature!)

Questions and Comments from Users


Are quantum integrated photonic circuits and photonic integrated circuits the same?

The author's answer:

Quantum integrated photonic circuits are specifically those where quantum optics effects are exploited – for example, in the context of quantum information processing.

Here you can submit questions and comments. As far as they get accepted by the author, they will appear above this paragraph together with the author’s answer. The author will decide on acceptance based on certain criteria. Essentially, the issue must be of sufficiently broad interest.

Please do not enter personal data here; we would otherwise delete it soon. (See also our privacy declaration.) If you wish to receive personal feedback or consultancy from the author, please contact him, e.g. via e-mail.

Spam check:

By submitting the information, you give your consent to the potential publication of your inputs on our website according to our rules. (If you later retract your consent, we will delete those inputs.) As your inputs are first reviewed by the author, they may be published with some delay.


Connect and share this with your network:

Follow our specific LinkedIn pages for more insights and updates: