From electronics to photonics – why light is the key enabler for so many emerging technologies

Richard Visser is CEO of SMART Photonics, a young, dynamic company founded in 2012 with twin locations, one at the TU/e Campus, as well as on High Tech Campus Eindhoven. He explained why he believes we’ve reached a new tipping point with photonics.

“Light can do so much more than just illuminate things” says an enthusiastic Richard Visser. “And we’ve really reached a tipping point with photonics. We’ve developed ways to manipulate light to perform functions that traditionally fell within the domain of electronics. Yet, we’re only just beginning to realise the possibilities, turn them into working prototypes and build completely new businesses”.

Remember Silicon in the Seventies
Lasers are not new, of course. They’ve been used in consumer DVD players and throughout high-speed data-communication and telecom for decades. What’s changed is that we’ve found that when you are able to integrate photonic components at a chip level, we can begin to explore all kinds of new uses and applications. “It reminds me of where we were with silicon forty years ago” says Visser.

“Take the back off an early portable radio and you’ll see distinct free-standing transistors, capacitors and resistors. There were no chips then because we didn’t have the technology to integrate a tremendous amount of functionality into one piece of Silicon. But look at the exponential growth of computing and communications once we succeeded.” Today it’s the same story with photonics. This means chips with much higher specs, such as stability and sensitivity, whereas the weight and costs are significantly lower. All kinds of practical examples are now emerging, where photonics makes very precise measurements in places that have not been possible until now.

Practical Applications for Photonics
“Suppose you’re trying to measure the stress on a structure in an aircraft wing – where the movement needs to be measured very accurately” explains Visser. “You can do it with a free standing laser and number optical components. But they are the size of a shoe box. That’s too heavy, too impractical and not stable enough to use when the aircraft is in flight. “

But suppose that measurement is performed on a chip connected by glass fibre and embedded in the aluminium structure of the aircraft wing. Then you start to open up a new world of extremely useful sensor technology to improve efficient monitoring, safety and design.”

Photonics technology is also useful in detecting gases in many environmental, biological and industrial applications. For example, take real time human breath analysis for detecting hydrogen cyanide or ammonia. These are indicators of lung damage, or possible kidney or liver failure. By taking advantage of integrated technology, expensive and bulky lasers can be replaced by a compact hand-held chemical sensor. Simultaneous sensitivity and resolution readings are possible, with broad spectral coverage and acquisition time of just a few milliseconds.

Integrated Photonics chips are also finding their way into medicine. For instance there’s a new technology on the market called Optical Coherence Tomography. It is attracting interest among the medical community, because it provides tissue morphology imagery at much higher resolution than you get with MRI or ultrasound. Just imagine scanning the surface of your eye, where you don’t want to risk using ionising radiation like X-rays.

Mark your calendar for 23 September
On Wednesday 23 September there will be a one-day conference at High Tech Campus Eindhoven dedicated to the huge business opportunities that lie ahead for Photonics.

The event will explore why business, investors and researchers need to continue to lead the world, demonstrate the great achievements so far, and showcase surprising examples of what’s just round the corner.

The conference programme is in the advanced planning stage and there is an early-bird discount. More details at


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