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Switch is a device that establishes and releases connections among transmission paths in a communication or signal processing system. A control unit processes the commands for connections and sends a control signal to operate the switch in a desired manner.


Size Directionality Switching time Propagation delay time Throughput Switching energy Power dissipation Insertion loss Cross talk Blocking probability Physical dimensions



Evolved steadily since the early years of telephony in tune with the developments in microelectronics. Nanoscale CMOS electronic gates operate with a switching time less than 0.1 nanoseconds and switching energies of the order of femtoseconds. Advanced MOSFET gates can switch at subpicosecond time scales. Electronic chips for cross bar switching with large number of ports(for instance 128*128) are readily available

Incoming optical signals from the optic fibers are detected by an array of photodetectors on an electronic chip switched using an electronic cross bar switch. At the output side signals are regenerated using an array of light sources.Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Lasers(VCSELs) are generally used for this purpose.
Electro-optic conversion at the output side and opto-electric conversion at the input side creates unnecessary time delay and power loss. Due to this inherent disadvantage of optoelectronic switches we go for transparent photonic switches that act directly on the optical signals by the use of electrical,acoustical magnetic or thermal effects.

Some basic configuration for optical switches

The most elementary optical switches are the scanner and modulator. The scanner deflects the incoming optical signal into one of the N possible directions and acts acts as a 1*N switch. An optical modulator operated in ON-OFF mode acts as a 1*1 switch. Modulation may be direct or interferometric.
Direct modulation relies on some physical effects that either transmits or block light. On the other hand interferometric switching may employ a phase modulator placed on one arm of the interferometer which converts phase modulation into intensity modulation. Elementary optical switches may be combined or cascaded to make switches of higher dimension.

Modulation and deflection of light can be achieved by:

Mechanical control Electromechanical control Electro-acoustic control Magnetic control Thermal control Optical control Correspondingly the switches are known as optomechanical(or mechano-optic),Micro-electro Mechanical system(MEMS),electro-optic,acousto-optic,magneto-optic or thermo-optic switches.


A mechano-optic switch may be implemented using a moving mirror,prism or a holographic grating that may deflect light beam to a set of directions. An optic fiber can be connected to any of a number of optic fibers by mechanically moving the input fiber to align with the other fibers. Piezo-electric elements may be used for better mechanical action.

MEMS Systems

Microelectromechanical(MEMS) systems are miniaturized systems powered by electrostatic actuators They are fabricated in large arrays using process similar to those of fabrication of microelectronic devices. Switching speed of MEMS switches ranges between 10 milliseconds to 10 microseconds.

MEMS Popup mirror switch

The major limitation of optomechanical switches are their slow response time(in milliseconds regime. The major advantages of optomechanical switches are low insertion loss and low cross talk.


In all optical switches(or opto-optic switches),'light controls light' with the help of a non linear optical medium. The control light alters some optical property of the non linear medium. This in turn alters some properties of controlled light. Other non linear interactions that can be used for switching include light sensitive retardation for absorption coefficient and optical soliton collision which is followed by frequency delay or time shift.

Non linear MZI switch

A Mach Zender interferometer with a non linear optical element in one of it's branches may be used as switch. The switch is controlled by an optical beam illuminating the non linear medium In the absence of control beam the interferometer is balanced such that the output is directed to one of the ports. In the presebce of control input a change in refractive index is created which in turn causes an incremental phase shit by 'pi' radians. The interferometer may be implemented by bulk optics or fiber optics.

Ultrafast Non Linear Sagnac Interferometer switch

Interferometric configurations to achieve ultrafast switching speeds of the order of Gb/sec have been demonstrated despite the relatively low carrier recovery time in SOAs. The switching speed of a non linear optical switch is limited by rise time and decay time of the optical pulse. Usually rise time is of comparatively short duration while decay time is of comparitively longer duration. This switching arrangement produces much greater switching speeds,limited only by the short rise time of the non linear effect.

Both branches of the interferometric element consists of the same non linear element. The light pulse that is to be switched crosses at different times. This is implemented by a fiber Sagnac interferometer with a non linear optical element placed at an asymetric location within the fiber loop. Switching action is governed by the time difference tau1-tau2.

Femtosecond switching speeds have been achieved. Switch can be operated at terahertz speed. This switch is used for Time Division Multiplexing. It is known as Terahertz Optical Asymmetric Demultiplexer(TOAD)

Non Linear Optical Retardation switch

An all optical switch maybe based on the nonlinear kerr effect in an anisotropic medium. The application of control optical pulse create different changes in principal refractive index. Hence it may be used as a wave retarder.

Soliton Switching

Solitions are ultrashort pulses that propagate in a non-linear dispersive media without spreading. A 1*2 all optical switch maybe realized by use of one optical soliton to control the routing of one into another. The interaction between soliton may take the form of a collision or a recombination into a single soliton. In either case some optical property of the input solition is altered by the interaction and the changed property is used to effect routing. Sub-Pico second switcing with switcihng energy of the order of Pico Joues have been achieved.

Soliton collision switching

If 2 solitons of slightly different frequencies(or group velocities) pass through one another(ie collide) arrival time and phase of each soliton is altered. One of the 2 pulses serve as the control pulse,while other acts as the signal pulse. Either the time delay or the phase shift associated with the collision is used to route the signal pulse. Time based routing is implemented by the use of an optical gate that opens during a prescribed time window,while phase based routing is effected by the use of an interferometer.

Vector Soliton Switching

Vector soliton consists of 2 solitons of 2 orthogonally polarized optical pulses copropagating through a non-linear birefringent material. One pulse acts as the control input while the other acts as the input signal. 2 pulses with orthogonal polarization travels in a birefringent material at slightly different group velocities.

As a result of the above mentioned circumstance they are separated in time resulting in a phenomenon known as 'walk off'. If the fiber is also non-linear cross phase modulation(XPM) results in frequency upshift in one pulse and frequency downshift in the other. Because of group velocity dispersion(GVD) these are accompanied by change in group velocities. When group velocity dispersion due to birefringence compensated by GVD(via XPM) the 2 pulses travel jointly.

This phenomenon is known as soliton trapping.

Fundamental limits on all optical switches.

Minimum values of the switching energy E and the switching time T of all optical switches are limited by the following factors.

Photon number fluctuation Energy-time uncertainty principle Switching time. Size Practical limitations.

Reference:Introduction to photonics by Bahaa E.A Saleh & Malvin Carl Teich