The world of photonics and its applications

The world of photonics and its applications

It seems like everybody agrees that photonics is one of the most promising sectors for high-tech advancement. In this case, however, it is not the usual suspects, like the USA, Japan or China, that are leading the development. Instead, it is led by the tiny Netherlands, followed closely by the United Kingdom. Dutch newspapers including the Volkskrant and AD signalled the rising star and reported its origination from Eindhoven, sometimes described as the Silicon Valley of the Netherlands. It is no surprise that the fertile soil for its rapid growth was prepared by tech giant Philips and the renowned University of Eindhoven.

In January 2021, local newspaper Eindhovens Dagblad published an article to explain – in layman’s terms – the world of photonics and its applications by taking the reader on a seven-question journey. A résumé of the article follows.

What exactly is photonics?

Professor Martijn Heck of TU/e (Eindhoven University of Technology) describes it as “systems in which a laser sends a beam of light that is received by a detector”. By coding the light into ones and zeros, it can be used to transmit photos, TV images, sounds, and data from the internet. Glass fibre enables the laser light to travel large distances, if necessary.

What is the promise of photonics?

“All across the world, companies are working hard on the development of photonics and this field is expected to grow exponentially”, Professor Heck, Eindhoven University of Technology, Photonic Integration Group. “Thirty years ago, using technology developed by Philips, among others, the continents of the world were linked with glass fibres to establish telephone and video connections. Later, exchanges and data centres for TV and internet were connected with fibre optics. In recent years, fibre optics have entered into people’s houses. Technology is currently being developed to direct light to devices in the home. This can be achieved via fibre, but also by air through advances such as LiFi – an alternative to WiFi. In addition, many companies are working on incorporating photonics into the printed circuit boards and chips in various devices.”

How far has photonics developed?

According to Photon Delta, the Dutch organisation that supports, promotes and drives the Dutch photonics eco-system and the development of photonic chips, investments are starting to pay off. The number of participating companies is increasing and next year employment will rise from 315 to 550 employees – with turnover rising from 13 million to 60 million euros. Investments have quadrupled to 88 million euros. The TU/e was one of the drivers of Jeppix, an international collaboration network. Companies such as Smart Photonics and EFFECT Photonics are cooperating to help develop and produce photonic integrated products.

In the UK, the ecosystem has a lot to offer in the area of high-quality precision manufacturing. “That’s one of the key things we bring together in EFFECT Photonics – the high-tech from the PhotonDelta network combined with manufacturing experience from the UK, Boudewijn Docter, President EFFECT Photonics.

What advantages do photonics bring?

Laser light is as fast as… light. Nothing is faster. Moreover, light can be turned off and on very quickly. With a digital code, information can be sent very compactly. Another advantage is the lack of resistance. If you send the same information via copper wires, you are not only limited in speed and capacity, but you also have large losses. As a result, it costs a lot of energy. In data centres especially, photonics can save a lot of energy.

What role does photonics play in the self-driving car?

Electronics and communication devices in our cars will increasingly contain photonics, emphasizing the lidar phenomenon. In a lidar, a laser emits a beam of light in all directions and a sensor picks up its reflection. By measuring the minimal difference between sending and receiving, you can deduce the exact distance. This is how you create an image with depth, even in the dark. Waymo began Google’s first experimental self-driving cars had such a huge equipment on their roof that it cost about as much as the whole car. Now these devices are much smaller and can be deployed in many other applications, such as mobile phones.

Which other industries can already benefit from photonics?

Clearly, modern telecoms networks benefit from the ability to exchange enormous amounts of data, in internet usage for example. Healthcare is another good example. There are systems that enable doctors to shine a laser through the skin. By measuring the reflection of that laser with a sensor that distinguishes many colours, you get information about skin, blood vessels and blood. This can be used to make a diagnosis, for example, of skin cancer. Agriculture and horticulture could certainly reap benefits; the reflection of laser beams can also provide a lot of information about fruits and vegetables. There are already systems that can determine the colour, ripeness and location of an apple. By doing this, photonics can help in automatic harvesting of fruit and vegetable crops.

Article source: Dutch newspapers highlight opportunities for the photonics sector

About EFFECT Photonics

EFFECT Photonics delivers highly integrated optical communications products based on its Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) optical System-on-Chip technology. The key enabling technology for DWDM systems is full monolithic integration of all photonic components within a single chip and being able to produce these in volume with high yield at low cost. With this capability, EFFECT Photonics is addressing the need for low cost DWDM solutions driven by the soaring demand for high bandwidth connections between datacentres and back from mobile cell towers. Headquartered in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, with additional R&D and manufacturing in South West UK, with sales partners worldwide.

Corlia van Tonder

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