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Cork researchers partner with German photonics firm to bring breakthroughs to industry

Posted on: 20 Sep 2020

Cork researchers partner with German photonics firm to bring breakthroughs to industry

The Tyndall National Institute, at UCC, aims to make the city a global gateway for photonics research.

Cork’s Tyndall National Institute is collaborating with German photonics equipment manufacturer, ficonTEC, to develop manufacturing solutions that transfer breakthroughs in their research to immediate industrial impact. The company offically set up a new research team in Tyndall last October.

“ficonTEC has installed state-of-the-art photonics manufacturing equipment at Tyndall to support the development of these advanced manufacturing technologies. It is a truly unique research and industrialisation ecosystem,” said Professor Peter O’Brien, head of photonics packaging research at Tyndall.

Tyndall National Institute

The national institute is leading an international consortium, PIXAPP, which is establishing the expertise and infrastructure to make Cork city the global gateway for photonics research and advanced manufacturing.

“This is being achieved through invaluable support from international and national agencies such as the European Commission; Science Foundation Ireland and Enterprise Ireland,” said the Tyndall head of photonics packaging research.

“Photonics offers new levels of speed and usage capacity that surpasses traditional technologies such as electronics which in many cases are nearing capacity,” said Prof. O’Brien who previously worked at the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, developing sensors for spacecraft and deep space telescopes.

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

“During the electronics revolution of the 1960s and seventies, everything was run on silicon microchips. There is now a move to use light and photonics involving the generation and control of light. Recent developments in advanced photonic microchips enable new applications not considered possible before: the photonics revolution,” Prof. O’Brien said.

Along with performing fundamental research in photonics, his group also undertakes industrial research projects with leading global companies in areas such as medical devices; automotive; space and aeronautics; communications; energy and security.

“Working with Medtronic, we developed a handheld medical device to detect early stage cardiovascular disease that can be used in a doctor’s surgery,” Prof. O’Brien said. “In collaboration with Carl Zeiss in Germany, we developed a portable diagnostic instrument to detect the onset of macular degeneration. We are also working on a number of exciting projects in quantum computing which use the unique properties of light to overcome the limits of classical computing systems.”

There has been extensive research across the world into photonic microchips over the last 20 years and the technology is now beginning to reach mass markets, Prof. O’Brien said.

“We are developing techniques to get light into and off these microchips and to control the light within the microchips, known as photonic packaging. The light in a microchip moves along a channel that is typically 200 billionths of a metre wide, so packaging presents many technological challenges.”

Recognised as a leader in photonics research, Prof. O’Brien and his group collaborate with other leading institutes around the world such as MIT; Caltech; UC Berkeley; Columbia University in the U.S. and European centres such as the Fraunhofer institutes in Germany.

In 2016, the group was awarded funding by the European Commission to establish the world’s first photonics packaging pilot line, PIXAPP, which has a total budget of €15.5m. Prof. O’Brien was also awarded funding by the Irish government under the Disruptive Technology Innovation Fund which has an overall budget of €4.1m, to build a national photonics manufacturing capability.

 “We will continue to build a world-leading research capability and to support companies in Ireland and across the world to unleash the power of photonics,” he said.

(Source: Business Post - Sunday Sept 20th)