New-age gold, the next ASML, one of Europe’s five “key technologies”, a business sector that is potentially worth billions. Superlatives are rife when you talk to a representative of the photonics sector. But, like most new technologies, the concrete vision of the future that the pioneers see so clearly is at most a vague promise for the rest of the world.
Photonics harnesses the power of light. We are mainly familiar with photonics in the form of fibre-optic cables, where light signals transport information from A to B. However, photonic technology is also used increasingly for producing super-fast and incredibly energy-efficient chips. Light signals are also at the heart of these developments, albeit on a nanoscopic scale. And this is exactly where Brabant has established itself as a worldwide authority. It mainly owes that position to years of research conducted by Eindhoven University of Technology. Companies that were founded as spin-offs from that research, such as SMART Photonics and EFFECT Photonics, now set the pace in photonic chip development on the global stage.
Without chips, there would be no smartphones, no computers, no aircraft and no cars. The whole world depends on chips. At the moment, these are mainly electronic chips; however this technology has almost reached its limits. The solution is made in Brabant: companies and researchers there are working on the first designs for chips that use beams of light rather than electronic signals. And the technology has been proven. This is exactly why photonics is such a promising new sector.
Photonics can accelerate progress in industries like automotive, aviation, aerospace and medical technology. At the same time, photonic chips will keep things moving on the electronic highways of the Internet. Fibre-optic technology has already led to major advances in the speed of information transfer, however the data centres are now becoming the limiting factor and that situation is likely to continue for the next five years. Demand for bandwidth is predicted to rocket well beyond the capabilities of the current electronic chips at the heart of the equipment in the data centres.
Ewit Roos, the director of PhotonDelta in Eindhoven, reels off several examples of the possible uses of photonics without having to pause for thought. “Take the aviation industry for example. This is a sector where safety is paramount and you need to have total confidence that parts will work reliably. A photonic chip in an aircraft wing can accurately calculate the stresses at any point in the wing. And generate an advance warning that pinpoints weak spots long before cracks start to develop.” But there are also more commonplace uses. “Because these chips are so energy-efficient, you will probably only have to recharge your smartphone once or twice a month in future.”
Obviously, the world has known for decades that light comes from Brabant. The light bulb of former times has now become the photonic chip. Specialists from Asia and America come to the Netherlands to learn the basics. And people like Ewit Roos travel all over the world to tell ‘our’ story and hear about developments taking place elsewhere. “We have to do everything possible to exploit the opportunities in this sector to the maximum”, says Roos. “We are at the very beginning of the development path and that means that there is still a great deal to learn.”
That will require funding. Roos: “We have established a lead over the rest of the world, but our competitors are breathing down our necks. Countries like China, Japan and the US are currently investing hundreds of millions in photonics.” In Europe, PhotonDelta has initiated and heads up a broad photonics collaboration, which is designed to keep competitors in the West and East at bay.
According to Roos, maintaining this position of leadership will require an investment of somewhere between 300 and 600 million euros. “We need that money for the industrial ecosystem, for developing and producing the chips, but also for testing them and packaging them in a way that allows them to communicate with each other.”
Around 25 Dutch companies specialise in developing and producing photonic integrated circuits (PICs). Most of these companies are located in the provinces of North Brabant, Gelderland and Overijssel. “These 25 companies are not yet fully mature and need a helping hand,” says René Penning de Vries, chair of the Dutch Photonics Agenda, a public-private partnership with the mission of putting photonics on the map in the Netherlands. “We want to help them develop into global players.” He expects that these 25 companies will jointly be good for an annual turnover of €1 billion and 4000 jobs in 2025.
But only if the sector gets the investment it needs. So when De Vries announced that €242 million would be invested in July 2018, the news was received with enthusiasm in the sector. Of that quarter billion, €160 million is currently already on the table. The Dutch cabinet has agreed to invest €35 million. Half of the remaining €125 million will be invested by the provinces of North Brabant, Gelderland and Overijssel, and the remaining half will be contributed by the business community. The other participants include the universities of Eindhoven, Twente and Nijmegen and companies like EFFECT Photonics and SMART Photonics.
It is now up to the researchers and businesses to put the money to concrete use. So that we can not only use a whole range of new features on our smartphones in a few years’ time, but also only have to charge them once a month.
Lack of investment, fragmented development activities and lack of awareness are all obstacles standing in the way of a photonics breakthrough. How can PhotonDelta resolveRead more
Photonics is more than a vague promise, says Richard Visser of SMART Photonics. "We are on the eve of something earth-shattering. Rather like the upheaval caused by the electronic chip.”Read more
Photonic chips from EFFECT Photonics are faster and more energy-efficient than electronic chips. So they are a viable solution for our data centres that increasingly consume vast amounts of energy.Read more
Light is a recurrent theme in Brabant's business landscape. Philips, of course, is the best-known example, but you can trace a direct line of development between the CD, DVD and Blu-ray and today's most complex photonics applications. Such as Morphotonics in Veldhoven.Read more
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