Many hands at new photonics platform to make light work better

Photonics, the generation, manipulation and use of light, is an industry likely to be worth €600bn by 2020

Dr Peter O’Brien and Dr Patrick Morrissey of the Irish Photonic Integration Centre with a photonics packaging system at the Tyndall National Institute.Photograph: Provision

Dr Peter O’Brien and Dr Patrick Morrissey of the Irish Photonic Integration Centre with a photonics packaging system at the Tyndall National Institute.Photograph: Provision


Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb was a bright idea when first introduced, but now researchers have found even better things to do with light, using it to grow an industry expected to be worth €600 billion by 2020.

Light is already carrying information, collecting medical data and etching silicon chips. But demand for new technologies that employ “photonics” is racing ahead, and countries around the world – including Ireland – are hoping to tap into its vast potential.

Photonics is interesting because it is not a direct industry but it is a key enabling technology and it is big,” says Dr Patrick Morrissey, manager of the Cork-based Irish Photonic Integration Centre.

In simple terms photonics is the generation, manipulation and use of light. How you use it depends on why a company needs it in the first place.

It could be a light signal passing down a fibre optic cable to provide phone, internet and television.

Or maybe a low energy light-editing diode (LED) used to illuminate the display on a mobile phone or a flat screen television, says Morrissey.

Formed in 2013, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded centre employs 100 scientists and engineers who pursue photonics research and connect academics and companies working in photonics.

Its five-year funding includes €200m from State coffers and €100m from industrial partners, with its client list illustrating how wide-ranging the field is.

It works with Seagate using lasers to increase data density on the company’s hard drives and with Stryker Corporation to develop optical sensors for its surgical devices.

“A lot of the technology is about how you miniaturise light systems, reducing their cost and the energy used,” says Morrissey.

The centre has worked well but it is set to launch an initiative to improve what it has to offer in the way of research, trained staff and geographic reach.

On September 1st the centre will announce the formation of “Photonics Ireland”, the Photonics National Technology Platform.

It is keyed to a major conference on photonics which opens on that day, with 200 academics, researchers and industrial partners expected, effectively most of Ireland’s photonics community.

“With the platform what we are trying to do is pull together Ireland’s photonics ecosystem to make it stronger,” says Morrissey. “We will create one platform with one voice and will look at ways to improve the system.”

He says it will also allow us to engage with similar platforms in other countries and also with one established by the EU, Photonics21.

If you think this is a solo run, think again; similar platforms really are being established with substantial money from state and industry. US president Barack Obama announced funding worth $200m for the creation of an integrated photonics manufacturing institute last October and it got up and running this month.

“We don’t have a platform like this but we need one,” Morrissey believes. “The cost of developing the technology is quite high and can be done cheaper with platform members. It can help with start-up companies; we will be able to be more effective.”

He says good communications exist between academics and the 30 or 40 companies in this photonics space here. “It is not about competing against one another, it is competing internationally.”

The companies are interested because they believe the current severe shortage of PhDs and trained researchers can be eased via the platform, he says. The academics develop devices over two or three years, but industry wants the technology in six months. The challenge will be to help move new technologies on to the street much more quickly.

Great things should come from the creation of a co-ordinated platform, says Joe O’Keeffe, CEO of photonics start-up company InfinLED.

It formed late in 2010 as a Tyndall National Institute spin-out, received its first seed funding early in 2012, and is now running profitably with 12 employees, says O’Keeffe.

“Our business focus changed over the past few years but we are now a display company with a new type of display for battery devices,” says O’Keeffe, who is a businessman, not a scientist.

This includes mobiles, games displays, televisions and just about anything else that uses the current iteration of illuminated display screen technology.

It started with light emitting diodes (LEDs) then moved on to liquid crystal displays then organic LEDs, the technology found in most Samsung battery devices, he says.

“We believe we have the fourth generation technology potentially leading on from OLEDs,” he says. “The key benefits are improved battery life and better brightness. The display improves battery life when this is important and we call it ILED Display Technology.”

If InfinLED really has developed the fourth generation display technology he is looking at a scarily big market, currently worth about €150billion annually.

“We are in full fund-raising mode now to bring this technology to market,” he says. “We launched [the fund-raising] this month and hope to raise about €12 million.”

When the centre opened in 2013, his company got involved immediately. “What it allowed us was a more formal channel into the expertise located within IPIC, ” he says.

It led to projects “of significant interest to us”, and he believes the platform can only enhance this.

“The Photonics National Technology Platform is putting a stronger structure and a more co-ordinated structure around photonics and this will be much stronger than IPIC alone.

“What this means to me as a CEO is it gives three things, access to equipment and infrastructure over and above Tyndall and anywhere in the country, broader expertise and access to qualified staff.”

He has struggled to find local graduates with sufficient experience in photonics and believes that having the platform in place will help identify promising people early on and give them experience of value to Irish SMEs.