ITF: Healthcare applications of silicon photonics

In an exclusive series of blogs, imec’s science writers report from the International Technology Forum (ITF) last week in Brussels. This year, ITF’s theme was “It’s a changing world. Let’s make a sustainable change together”.

Optical techniques have always played an important role in biology and biotechnology, said Roel Baets, director of the Centre for Nano- and Biophotonics Ghent University, Belgium. But so far the use of solutions based on optical chips has been limited. This will drastically change with the advent of silicon photonics.

Silicon photonics is the name for the technology of optical components and chips using silicon as base material. A major advantage is that it allows fabrication with state-of-the-art semiconductor equipment, using the same processes and tools as for the fabrication of ICs.

During the past ten years, imec and its associated lab at Ghent University have pioneered the field of silicon photonics, building components and demonstrating their outstanding performance. This has resulted in numerous publications, awards, and prototypes.

Driven by the need for higher bandwidth between and on chips, silicon photonics has very rapidly gained momentum for use in high-bandwidth I/O. And in the field of biotechnology and healthcare, silicon photonics is becoming a key platform for lab-on-chip solutions for protein and DNA assays.

These techniques are generally based on label-free refractive index sensing, in combination with molecule-selective affinity binding at the functionalized chip surface.

But the power of light is at its best when making use of the spectroscopic fingerprint of biomolecules – be it absorption spectroscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy or Raman spectroscopy. Spectroscopy-on-chip based on silicon photonics has an immense potential for in-vitro study of biological interactions, for point-of-care systems, and for miniaturized body implants.

To wrap up his presentation, Roel Baets showed some of the projects that his group has been working on. One, for example, is an implantable chip designed to measure blood glucose through an on-chip miniaturized spectrometer. Another is a custom biosensor chip that imec and Genalyte have designed and fabricated. The chips will be used as biosensing disposables for use in Genalyte diagnostic and molecular detection equipment.

Jan Provoost, science writer imec

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