Tyndall National Institute looks ahead to bright future for photonics research

Tyndall National Institute looks ahead to bright future for photonics research
Prof Peter O’Brien.

Tyndall National Institute in Cork is leading a new international consortium which will provide Europe with state-of-the-art photonics infrastructure.

The value of the photonics market is expected to be worth over €615bn by 2020 and with Europe’s share of the production technology market currently at 55%, Tyndall’s new consortium PIXAPP will play a critical role in future economic development.

Photonics offers a new level of speed and usage capacity far above traditional technologies which in many cases are nearing capacity. 

It uses light in tiny Photonic Integrated Circuit (PIC) microchips rather than electrons to perform a wide variety of functions including high-speed communication over fibre optic cables, sensing and imaging for medical devices and the control of self-driving cars.

PIXAPP director and head of Photonics Packaging Research at Tyndall National Institute, Prof Peter O’Brien, said: “The PIXAPP consortium has an unmatched record of excellence in delivering many ‘world firsts’ in PICs. Packaging PICs can represent up to 80% of the cost of photonic components so it is a critical area for industry.

“In the past it has been very expensive to manufacture high volumes of PICs and more expensive and challenging again to package them, where packaging involves connecting these tiny microchips to the real world. 

"This is creating a bottleneck in production, which is impacting the potential for growth in the photonics industry.”

Prof O’Brien said that the Tyndall-led PIXAPP consortium received €13.8 million in funding from the EU and this funding has enabled Tyndall to build a truly global footprint — “enabling us to expand not only across Europe but also in the US.

We now have industrial research projects with leading US companies in communications, medical devices, automotive, energy and security.

“We were hugely excited recently to demonstrate a novel medical device we developed in collaboration with Medtronic which was tested in a Paris hospital ….. a device used to detect early stage cardio-vascular disease so instead of patients having to visit a large hospital or clinical laboratory, they can be tested at their local doctor’s surgery.

"All the critical parts of this compact medical device have been miniaturised onto a tiny millimeter-scale photonic chip, replacing the large and very expensive equipment used today.”

Tyndall, he says, has strong research collaborations in photonics with some of the top universities and institutes in the US including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University in New York, University of California in Berkeley, University of Arizona and the California Institute of Technology.

Exciting plans on horizon

Prof O’Brien is a visiting scientist at Columbia University, while he is also an Adjunct Professor at the Optical Sciences Centre based at The University of Arizona. He is excited about plans going forward.

“Universities and industry in the US like to collaborate with us because we have a very unique capability in that we accelerate research from the laboratory to real-world applications, so for instance researchers might be developing a new photonic microchip and with our capabilities — i.e. component integration and packaging, we can design their devices into new applications so for example taking a microchip designed for sensing and integrating it onto a catheter so it can be used for in-body diagnostics such cardio-vascular disease monitoring.”

Tyndall National Institute looks ahead to bright future for photonics research

Tyndall received €4.1m in Destructive Technologies Innovation Funding via the Department of Business, Enterprise & Innovation.

“Our goal is to expand photonic manufacturing capabilities in Ireland, building on the significant investments already made in photonics research through agencies such as Science Foundation Ireland who funded the Irish Photonics Integration Centre,” said Prof O’Brien. 

“Our goal is to establish new photonic manufacturing companies in Ireland and support companies who want to use photonics in their new products, especially medical devices. 

"To help achieve this goal, we have a leading German company coming to Tyndall this year. ficonTEC are a global leader in advanced photonic packaging equipment. 

Together, we will develop the next generation of robotic photonic manufacturing equipment, ensuring Ireland and Europe maintains its leading position in photonics research and advanced manufacturing.

“We are extremely grateful to the Irish Government for this funding and confident it will provide a significant return on investment.

"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”.

Tyndall are also collaborating with a $600m consortium in the US called the American Institute for Manufacturing in Photonics, including technology roadmapping. 

Peter says networking is key to success and Tyndall is involved in organising conferences and exhibits in the US for example Peter and his team are attending one of the largest Photonics Conferences in the World ‘Photonics West’ in San Francisco this month.

US promotional event

“We have organised an evening reception at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in order to talk about Tyndall and the work that we do and we will also hold a breakfast meeting where we invite company CEOs and CTOs. 

"We also have a one-day technology workshop in San Diego in March on Building the Supply Chain for Photonics Manufacturing and that again coincides with another global conference ‘The Optical Fibre Conference’. 

We organise invited talks in the US throughout the year and that is extremely important as Science Foundation Ireland and Tyndall have long-standing relationships in the US and it is important to visit partners at their main research centres or headquarters to discuss new opportunities.

Peter previously worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory in the US developing sensors for spacecraft and very sensitive deep-space telescopes. 

A physics graduate of Trinity College Dublin, he completed a Masters in Engineering and PhD in Physics at UCC before travelling to Caltech in the US. 

He returned to Cork where his wife Siobhan is from and together they founded a Photonics Company which they sold in 2009 before Peter joined Tyndall.

“Tyndall works closely with the IDA and Enterprise Ireland. Ireland is fast becoming a very attractive location to perform advanced research and transfer this research to manufacturing, creating new high-value products which improve our lives.

www.tyndall.ie

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