InP’s New Horizons: The Blossoming Potential with Looming Monopoly

In the bustling tech bazaar, the iPhone 14 Pro and AirPods 3 are pioneering the tech industry by incorporating InP(Indium phosphide)-based EEL(Edge Emitting Laser). These devices are leveraging the unique attributes of long-wavelength technology for skin detection, which is a strategic move that highlights the gradual emergence of InP material in the consumer market.

Historically, data communication and telecom industries have acted as the primary fuel for the InP market, their demand for backbone network photoelectric and 400G/800G optical modules in data centers has been consistent. However, as the quality and refinement of 6-inch InP single-crystal growth technology advance, we see a reduction in production costs, thus unlocking a gateway to consumer applications.

Emerging Dual Frontiers: Consumer and Photonic Applications

Apple and other savvy smartphone OEMs are contemplating the introduction of long-wavelength InP-based EEL in their next-gen products. This would be used for physiological sensing in proximity sensors or possibly to replace the currently used 940nm GaAs-based VCSEL(Vertical Surface Emitting Laser) in 3D sensing.

Simultaneously, the evolution of autonomous driving is nudging automotive laser radars towards the 1550nm wavelength, a departure from the former 905nm. This shift promises increased detection range and improved protection for human eyes.

In the realm of photonics communication technology, a more significant growth driver stems from the trend of high-end EML(Electro-absorption Modulated Laser) replacing traditional DFBs(Distributed-feedback laser).

As next-gen data center applications are steered towards 400G/800G transmission speed solutions, EML laser chips promising high bandwidth performance and high yield will take the spotlight. They are anticipated to realize the high-speed transmission characteristics of single-wavelength 100G.

It is also worth noting that as fiber-optic access in the PON (Passive Optical Network) market gradually upgrades to the 25G/50G-PON solution, there is an evident trend towards integrated solutions combining laser chips and SOAs (Semiconductor Optical Amplifiers). This shift is driven by the increasing demands for higher transmission rates and output power, leading to the replacement of discrete DFB solutions.

Supply Chain Over-centralization: A Precursor to a Sellers’ Market?

This cornucopia of application scenarios signals tremendous market potential for InP-based components. However, one must question whether the supply chain is prepared for this windfall.

One of the concern is that the industry chain’s over-centralization might usher in a seller’s market situation.

InP substrate materials and epitaxial silicon wafers pose a high technological threshold and are primarily monopolized by few manufacturers, particularly those from Europe, the U.S. and Japan.

  • The InP substrate material market is highly monopolized by Sumitomo Electric Industries, AXT, and JX NMM, which collectively account for 90% of market share in 2020.
  • The epitaxy process is the crux of photonic chip production, with tech prowess directly impacting product performance and reliability. Key suppliers capable of providing InP epitaxy silicon wafers include IQE, Lumentum, and Sumitomo, among others.
  • In terms of photonic chip technology, its value lies more in added functionality, necessitating process integration. This gives rise to IDM giants dominating the market. For instance, Lumentum, Sumitomo, and Mitsubishi dominate the 25G DFB laser chip market.

While the influx of newcomers from China is seen in the lower-tech optical module packaging sector, the core technologies upstream are still held firmly by international industry leaders, posing a challenging breakthrough for newcomers in the short term.

The growing interest in the market for this technology indicates that end-product manufacturers developing new applications based on InP will inevitably need to double down their efforts to ensure the stability of long-term supply. It remains to be seen whether the singularity of the supply chain will further restrict the proliferation of emerging applications in the end market.