Photonics, the ‘Green Deal’ technology

Scientist Arno Klenke working in a lab of the 'Abbe Center of Photonics' in Jena, Germany, 05 July 2016. [EPA/MARTIN SCHUTT]

This article is part of our special report How the light gets in: Europe’s Photonics Landscape.

Photonics has been defined as a vital technology in Europe’s future digital transformation as well as helping the bloc achieve broader sustainability goals and strategic autonomy. However, there remains a deficit in public awareness on the technology. EURACTIV caught up with DG Connect’s Lucilla Sioli to find out what photonics can do for Europe’s digital sector and beyond.

Lucilla Sioli is Director for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Industry at the European Commission’s DG Connect.   

The technology of photonics is one of the European Commission’s six Key Enabling Technologies of the 21st century. Why, therefore, do you think there is a lack of public knowledge on the power of this technology in particular?

Although everyone is familiar with light, not everyone knows the term ‘photonics’ which is the area of technology dealing with light. New light bulbs, lasers for welding cars, sensors to detect cancer, systems to check food quality, sort waste, help surgeons operate… all of these are examples of applications using photonics.

The public awareness of the power of photonics has grown steadily in the last years, also because photonics is listed by the European Commission as one of the Key Enabling Technologies. The Commission has emphasised the enormous growth potential this advanced technology presents for Europe.

The biggest hurdle is probably the unusual term “photonics”. When “lasers”, “sensors”, “cameras”, “displays” and so on are mentioned, everybody gets it immediately. But not “photonics”. “Photonics” as a term is relatively new. It is not so long ago that automatic text correction software indicated it as a misspelled word! But we are sure that soon photonics will become a term as familiar as “electronics”.

There had previously been concerns highlighted by several Nobel laureates that photonics did not appear a ‘priority’ of the Commission in a previous draft of the Horizon Europe Programme. What was the Commission’s response?

Even if there was not a ‘Photonics’ heading, the Commission is well aware of the importance of the area, not least since no less than 53 Nobel Prizes have been awarded for photonics breakthroughs.  The fact that those eminent European scientists have received support during their career by the European Union is a remarkable sign of the success and foresight of European research policies.

The Commission has been supporting photonics since the early 90s, long before it did so through a dedicated Partnership, and has always confirmed that will continue to support this vitally important sector, that is crucial for the European economy, and to overcome impelling societal challenges.

In terms of the EU’s investment into photonics, how do we compare with other global markets, such as in the US and China?

In terms of private sector research investment, we compare very well indeed. Recent studies show that the Photonics Industry in Europe invests about 11% of its revenues back into R&D spending, well above what is currently spent in the chemical or telecom sectors. It is a clear sign of the growth phase which photonics is in.

Public funding at EU level is also significant – a recent market study identified some 800 EU Horizon 2020 programme projects totalling over €1.6 billion funding related to photonics (including those of the EU’s Public Private Partnership dedicated to Photonics, which set aside €700 million).

On a global scale for markets, Europe is in 2nd place overall and is leading by far in some sectors, like production technologies, or medical devices, and even increasing its global market share of these. However, it is clear that there is an increasing competition, especially from China which has the global market lead (thanks in a large part to its photovoltaics industry), and is also massively investing in publicly funded research.

Thinking about EU-funded projects working with photonic technologies, where have we seen the greatest success stories?

We’ve had more than 100 projects funded by the Photonics PPP, and it is estimated that in the Horizon 2020 programme almost 800 photonics-related projects across a wide range of applications were supported. Each of them advanced the field a step further, but we also certainly have star projects.

The latest is VOSTARS achieving the world’s first surgery performed with an augmented reality visor. More successes are in the pipeline. Many breakthroughs will end up in products and cannot be disclosed.

Which sectors do you think benefit the most from a resilient and innovative photonics industry?

Photonics is a key enabling technology for the whole digital sector and indeed in many applications even beyond ICT in which it is used to sense what is happening, power processes, and transfer data and information. It will help to collect much of the data that Artificial Intelligence needs – it already is the “eyes of the Robots”.

It provides the network on which the Internet operates, e.g. higher speed fibre optic systems for broadband internet, even at its growing speed and reducing its environmental footprint. It will empower most of the Digital Transformation.

However, the ICT sector is not the only one that will be positively impacted. The Commission started long ago to fund projects targeting also traditional industries to introduce photonics into new areas, like agriculture or health and environment protection, for greater efficiency and productivity in manufacturing and industry, and to fully exploit this technology and compete on a global scale. Photonics is going to be essential over the whole spectrum of human activities.

Can photonics technologies be leveraged in the other priorities of the European Commission? How could photonics be used as part of the executive’s climate goals, for example?

As an enabling technology, Photonics is poised to contribute to several Commission Priorities. It certainly contributes to the two overarching priorities of this Commission: the Digital Transformation, where sensors, cameras and lasers are vital, and the Green Deal, where the use of photonics will have a major impact.

Photonics is an inherently green technology – for example, 3 billion tons less C02 is the predicted indirect potential impact in 2030 when photonics is employed. From reduced energy consumption in data centres or fertiliser use, through the reduced use of resources in manufacturing, or by enabling new recycling processes and technologies – photonics is a driver of global sustainability.

What new markets can emerge out of the development of photonics technologies?

Advanced photonics technologies have the potential to revolutionise existing application sectors or to create completely new applications and markets. We have seen this happening through the years, in the lighting sectors, for example, or in farming.

The Commission has been supporting this process by developing a Strategic Roadmap together with the Technology Platform Photonics21 and by funding specific projects, like ActPhast, helping SMEs to use photonics and to introduce photonics solution in non-photonics products.

This year we have an open call for proposals on “Disruptive photonics technologies” covering 4 very different areas: 3D light field and holographic displays, Packaging and module integration for photonic integrated circuits, Light to Fuel (converting sunlight directly into fuel) and Next generation biophotonics methods and devices as research tools to understand the cellular origin of diseases.

We know that more is happening in the vibrant photonics landscape. But we can’t always predict how new developments will be used – this is why we need to maintain competence in core or fundamental photonics technologies as well.

Can photonics play a key part in helping Europe to achieve digital sovereignty?

Yes. Photonics has a strong base in Europe, especially in segments like Production Technology, Machine Vision, Optical Components and Medical Technologies. The global market for photonics is expected to continue growing, thanks to the extensive application of photonics in an increasing number of end-use industries, including life sciences, manufacturing, electronics, photovoltaics, security and defence, and information and communications technology.

For this last area, the need to enhance the speed and capacity of data transfer is driving the adoption of Photonic Integrated Circuits in the growing semiconductor industry. It is clear that we need to maintain or acquire sovereignty, as we need to be able to shape and choose the key technologies at the heart of many sectors in our economy and society.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

Subscribe to our newsletters