A leading light in the photonics world

PIXAPP boasts the world’s first open-access PIC assembly and packaging pilot line, but Professor Peter O’Brien tells Margaret Jennings that the Tyndall-led consortium has also become a global co-ordinator, which includes the training of the future workforce in this cutting-edge technology space.

5 MIN READ
10 Dec 2019
Professor Peter O'Brien (Photography: Mike Hannon)

The term ‘Valley of Death’ has an ominous ring to it and indeed, within the world of research, it is a phrase that graphically encapsulates that gap that needs to be traversed from the initial phases of the laboratory research, to getting a product out into the market.

Many a good research idea has literally died that death because it could not be transferred and practically manufactured in the real world. This is a challenge that has existed in the cutting-edge world of photonics, a technology that uses the generation, control and detection of light through nano-scale silicon chips, called Photonic Integrated Circuits (PICs).

As the speed and usage of our traditional electronic technology is almost at capacity, photonics has the potential to have a farreaching impact on our lives in many areas – including high-speed communication systems, miniaturised healthcare devices and compact sensing devices for mass market applications, such as self-driving cars.

“With the support of SFI and the European Commission, in particular, we have been able to reach our strategic objectives and we are now planning for even bigger developments in the coming years,” says Peter.

But while there have been significant developments globally to advance these technologies – mostly focusing on those tiny microchips – there were major technical and economic hurdles to overcome when it came to connecting these microchips to the real world, using fibre optics, micro lenses and electronic control devices. It is also worth noting that these ‘photonic packaging’ tasks can amount to 80% of the total manufacturing cost.

It became evident that it would be necessary to develop design rules and standards for packaging PICs; to package them cost-effectively, so that the gap between research and industry could be bridged – a vital task, considering the photonics markets is expected to be worth €615bn by 2020. Tyndall National Institute professor, Peter O’Brien, first identified that requirement within this technological revolution 10 years ago; now he and his team are recognised as world leaders in packaging PICs.

“Besides performing the research, you have to ask ‘how can I focus my research to make a real impact?’ And this was it,” says Peter. “I saw the need for packaging as an opportunity – almost from a business point of view, but from a research perspective, obviously; that we could have a unique selling point in advanced photonics research.”

“I saw the need for packaging as an opportunity – almost from a business point of view, but from a research perspective – that we could have a unique selling point in advanced photonics research” – Professor Peter O’Brien

It paid off: two years ago the EU invested €15.5m in an international consortium called PIXAPP led by Peter, who is also head of Photonics Packaging Research at Tyndall. His research group is also participating in 14 major EU research projects under the Horizon 2020 programme.

PIXAPP provides the world’s first open-access PIC assembly and packaging pilot line, which accelerates research from the laboratory to industry.

One example of a product which hit the headlines for PIXAPP some months back is a ground-breaking hand-held device which provides an early-warning indicator for cardiovascular disease. It will enable GPs to detect hardening arteries, sparing the patient visits to hospitals and clinics, and should be available on the medical market in about five years’ time.

One of the packages that Peter and his team work with at Tyndall

“All the critical parts of this compact medical device have been miniaturised into tiny millimetre-scale chips, replacing the large and very expensive equipment used today. It’s just one example of the many emerging market opportunities within the photonics space,” says Peter.

Because the PIXAPP pilot line has become globally recognised for creating and formalising the core technologies – applying design rules and standards – they are now in a pivotal position between researchers in major educational institutions and industries worldwide.

They have established collaborations, for instance, with some of the top US universities and institutes including Columbia University in New York (where Peter is a visiting scientist); University of California in Berkeley; the California Institute of Technology; University of Arizona (where Peter is an adjunct professor) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Irish government has also invested a further €4.1m in funding from the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF) for the establishment of a national pilot line, to build an indigenous photonics manufacturing capability.

 “We’ve got the remit, the knowledge, the network and the confidence to go out and promote this community on a global stage – so it’s bigger than just the technology. I think that’s an important message” – Professor Peter O’Brien

However, Peter points out that at this stage PIXAPP has gone beyond just the technology aspect. “There is great technology, and we saw a gap in the research field and we exploited that, but now we are coordinating an ecosystem – the people who make these PIC microchips, the research scientists, engineers, the machine builders, the people who manage the designs; we are seen as a global coordinator in that space, in a market that is taking off in a revolutionary way."

It’s a very good place to be in.

“We’ve got the remit, the knowledge, the network and the confidence to go out and promote this community on a global stage – so it’s bigger than just the technology. I think that’s an important message.”

Because of their international reputation, the Tyndall-led consortium has also become a space for training the future workforce in photonics. “A lot of resources we get from agencies like Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the European Commission I see as seed funding for additional growth; an initial investment in us to go and build something bigger. That includes educating the future generation of photonic scientists and engineers,” says Peter.

“We have a training programme for industry and an education programme for students. We have PhD students and we educate them in advanced technologies," he adds.

“Then we are also training the future workforce in photonics. For example, the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics is setting up a new photonics packaging capability, so they sent over their development team to be trained here: we charge for that, which contributes to our long-term sustainability.”

Their success didn’t happen overnight of course: they started with a strategic plan to focus on a core technology and to collaborate with leading academic and industrial partners around the world by offering a unique research capability.

“With the support of SFI and the European Commission, in particular, we have been able to reach our strategic objectives and we are now planning for even bigger developments in the coming years,” says Peter.

“I think it’s a message about how you run your research group as well – to differentiate, to collaborate with the best, to identify uniqueness in your research, to network and travel and to win competitive funding. You can’t expect to keep working in isolation doing great research, and expect things to happen; international collaboration, promotion and outreach are essential.”

 

Follow this link for more information about research at Tyndall National Institute.

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