Science Foundation Ireland: Bringing photonics out into the light

Ireland is a world leader in technology which underpins the internet and many electronic devices


Far-sighted investment over many years has established Ireland as a world leader in photonics. This may sound like a fairly obscure area but it is the technology which underpins the internet and a variety of electronic and medical devices.

“Most people will be familiar with electronics but less so with photonics,” explains Prof Paul Townsend, head of photonics with the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork. “It’s everywhere today. It’s in video displays, phones, medical devices, the internet. It is a key enabling technology.”

Townsend is also director of the newly- established €30 million Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Irish photonic integration centre (IPIC) which is a collaboration between Tyndall and University College Cork, Cork Institute of Technology, Dublin City University and 18 private industry partners.

The new centre brings together over 100 researchers from the four institutes to develop new light-enabled technologies. It will also act as a high-tech start-up base, with new high-tech company X-Celeprint already committed to base its headquarters in Tyndall and to create up to 20 jobs in the next two years.

The funding for the centre is made up of €20 million from SFI’s research centres programme, with an additional €10 million from industry.

Among IPIC’s targets over the next six years are the creation of 200 new jobs through 30 research projects and the commercialisation of new photonic technologies.

The centre’s work will focus on revolutionising the speed of data transfer, creating more energy efficient devices and delivering new smart medical devices for improved diagnosis and treatment of disease.

The new centre is just the latest stage in a process which has been ongoing for the past number of years and has its origins in the establishment of Optronics Ireland with the support of Enterprise Ireland more than 20 years ago.

“What’s been happening is that SFI has been investing in the technology over the years and Ireland is now a leader in Europe in this area. The investment in IPIC is recognition of that success and of the critical mass in research capability which we have built up in this country.The development of IPIC will allow us to go to the next stage and work much more closely with industry.

“Overall the aim is to capitalise on the scientific lead we have established and become a world class centre for photonics research.

“We also want to offer Irish firms a gateway to access the technology in the future. The twin aims are to have a scientific and economic impact.”

The practical applications of the technology include the prospect of having diagnostic equipment capable of detecting cancer cells in blood small enough to sit on a GP’s desk.

“At present these machines are the size of a couple of large photocopiers stuck together and we are working on their miniaturisation. We are also looking at making them even smaller and possibly even getting to the stage where we have handheld versions.”

This is made possible by photonics which allows many of the components of the existing machines to be replaced with microchips. “This means that we are reducing the scale of things to millimetres squared rather than metres squared. It’s very much like the electronics revolution of 30 years ago.”

Another application in the healthcare area is minimally invasive or keyhole surgery. “The challenge now is how to put the imaging sensors on the instruments.”

The other major area of work for the new centre is the internet. “The plumbing for the internet is made of optical fibre. Whenever you click on a web link you’re making the connection by light. And traffic on the internet is increasing tenfold every five years. That is putting major stresses on the infrastructure and the photonic technology itself. The internet is also starting to use too much power and it is becoming more and more important to reduce its energy consumption.”

Another imperative is to increase the data-carrying capacity of the existing infrastructure. When constraints were first experienced the solution was to use different colours of light running across the same fibre to carry different channels – this was known as wavelength division multiplexing. At the time this was believed to offer a long term solution.

“Just like what is happening in the radio spectrum area, light spectrum is now becoming very scarce as well,” says Townsend. “It wasn’t an issue with optical in the past as we had so much spectrum that we didn’t have to be careful. We are going through the same sort of process that happened with copper wire in terms of having to get the best out of what we have.

“We are looking at putting the different light wavelengths as closely together as possible in the fibre, but that means that we have to come up with ways of reducing the interference between them.”

This very practical focus is something which Townsend welcomes. “One of the great things about the new centre is that it allows for the first time a mix between longer-term fundamental technological research and targeted research with our industry partners. It is a virtuous cycle.

“The fact that we are working with all these industry partners allows the scientists here to stay much more connected with the commercial marketplace. We can see at a much earlier stage what might be useful. There is also a real discipline there in that we have to get at minimum 30 per cent of our funding from industry. That means we have to remain of interest to industry.”