Photonics may not be a word in common parlance just yet, but its effects will soon impact upon numerous aspects of our everyday lives.
A technology involving the manipulation and control of light, it offers a major leap forward in the dynamic areas of high-speed fibre optic communications, medical diagnostics, self-driving cars, the Internet of Things and the critical data storage of today’s interconnected world.
With the speed and usage of our current electron technology almost at capacity, photonics addresses the ever increasing speed requirements in communications, healthcare and security.
An analogy of the technology could be compared to how the enormous room-sized 1950s computers were completely transformed with the breakthrough of 1960s silicon technology, allowing massive amounts of information to be downsized into a tiny chip. Integrated photonics is now having the same effect as the silicon chip did 50 years ago through a further miniaturisation of our increasingly portable world.
In its 2018 annual report, Cork’s Tyndall National Institute has announced that it successfully secured over €8m in European funding as part of the Horizon 2020 programme. The Institute was one of the biggest individual Irish beneficiaries of this significant round of 2019 funding, despite stiff competition from other European bodies.
Since the launch of Horizon 2020, Tyndall is in the top 10 beneficiaries across Europe in the area of Information and Communication Technologies, and will lead four of the 15 international multi-partner projects which it won in 2019, including a major photonics pilot line for medical technologies, a Marie-Sklowdoska-Curie career development programme for 27 fellows, two energy projects and another in cryogenic electronics for quantum technologies.
Tyndall's chief executive William Scanlon said 2018 was "another phenomenally successful year" for the Institute.
"Of the 51 applications submitted in 2018, 16 were approved for funding, a 31% success rate that is truly exceptional. Participation by Irish-based industry was very strong and for 50% of the companies partnering with Tyndall, it was their first time to be involved in an EU project," he said.
With the photonics market expected to be worth €615bn by 2020, the EU has invested €15.5m in an international consortium, Pixapp, led by Tyndall, to provide a state-of-the-art infrastructure, supporting the industrial development and manufacture of this emerging technology.
Pixapp is the world’s first open-access Photonic Integrated Circuit assembly and packaging pilot line, bridging the "valley of death" frequently associated with moving from prototyping to low-volume fabrication, giving companies an access route for transferring research and development results to the market.
"In the past it has been very expensive to manufacture high volumes and more expensive and challenging again to package them, which involves connecting these tiny microchips to the real world," said Pixapp director and head of photonics packaging research at Tyndall, Peter O’Brien.
"This is creating a bottleneck in production, which is impacting the potential for growth in the photonics industry," he said.
EU funding has enabled Tyndall to build a global footprint across Europe and the US.
"While the chips are made at a number of locations around the world, nobody had looked at actually packaging the optical fibres processing the light and powering the micro-lenses, which requires a huge amount of scientific and engineering skill," said Mr O'Brien.
"In our Tyndall labs over the last 10 years we have developed a capability to address that need. That is the key to our unique selling point, and which has resulted in people from all around the world coming to us because of our exclusive capability in this area."
Tyndall has effectively positioned itself between researchers and industry, with the result that the Cork institute now presents itself as a centre with the knowledge of how these technologies fit together, how to promote it to industry and work with them to commercialise it.
In effect, Tyndall has established best-in-class packaging technologies that are cost-effective and scalable to high-volume manufacture.
"We were chosen by the EU as the first in the world to put these technologies into a manufacturing framework, but the problem we identified was that there is no big volume capability anywhere, never mind in Europe, that can really scale it up," Mr O’Brien said.
"Companies come to us and see the prototypes and how we can make hundreds of parts, but they want to know how we can make millions of parts. There is a very real business aspect to this, which could be an enormous opportunity for Ireland," he said.
Tyndall Cork is also collaborating with the American Institute for Manufacturing in Photonics, whose mission statement is "to capture critical global manufacturing leadership in an essential technology and to emulate the dramatic successes experienced by the electronics industry over the past 40 years."
Mr O’Brien points out that universities and industry in the US like to collaborate with Tyndall "because we have a very unique capability in that we accelerate research from the laboratory to real-world applications."
An example of the technology was demonstrated earlier this year when Tyndall researchers showcased a handheld bio-photonic instrument capable of providing an early warning of cardiovascular disease, ensuring patients need no longer endure lengthy hospital stays for testing.
"All the critical parts of this compact medical device have been miniaturised onto a tiny millimetre-scale photonic chip, replacing the large and very expensive equipment used today," Mr O'Brien said.
Tyndall’s goal is to expand photonic manufacturing capabilities in Ireland, building on the significant investments already made in research through agencies such as Science Foundation Ireland, which funded the Irish Photonics Integration Centre.
"Our goal," Mr O'Brien said, "is to establish new photonic manufacturing companies in Ireland and support companies who want to use photonics in their new products, especially medical devices."
Tyndall will also develop the next generation of robotic photonic manufacturing equipment, ensuring Ireland and Europe maintains its leading position in photonics research and advanced manufacturing.
"We also plan to train and educate the photonics workforce of the future, creating a unique laboratory-based training programme which will be a game-changer not only for the European photonics industry but also global photonics," Mr O'Brien said.