Photonics can transform the UK, says IOP report launched on global day of light

31 May 2018

The photonics industry already contributes £13bn to the UK economy and employs 65,000 people, and it has huge potential to revolutionise diverse sectors from satellite communications to healthcare, according to a report launched by IOP with an event on the first International Day of Light.

Photonics can transform the UK, says IOP report launched on global day of light

The publication – The Health of Photonics: how light-based technologies are solving industry challenges, and how they can be harnessed to impact future economic growth – maps the UK research landscape in photonics and shows in detail how the industry has the current and future solutions to address the Government’s “Grand Challenges”. These include an ageing society, AI and the data-driven economy, clean growth, the future of mobility, food safety and increasing productivity.

Dr James McKenzie, IOP’s Vice-President for Business (pictured above), said that although the photonics sector was very fragmented and consisted mainly of small and medium-sized companies, it was diverse in its applications and geographically, and the UK had a very strong presence in several sectors including lasers, lighting, defence and LiFi. Getting that message across was one of the key aims of the report, he said.

Several industry leaders who contributed to the report’s case studies on aerospace, communications, defence, energy, food, healthcare, lighting and manufacturing spoke at the launch event on 16 May.

Giving an overview of the breadth of photonics, Dr David Binks, a Reader at the University of Manchester and recently chair of IOP’s Quantum Electronics and Photonics Group, said there were fundamental reasons to believe that photonics would remain a key enabling technology. Light-based technology has a huge capacity to carry data, he said, and a team at University College London had recently demonstrated that optical communications had the potential to transmit data at 1TB/s – equivalent to sending the complete works of Shakespeare 100,000 times a second.

Photonic devices are becoming more efficient and cheap to make and photons are a plentiful source of energy, far outstripping fossil fuels, while making cheap photovoltaic cells is “just a problem of technology”, he argued. Describing photons as “accessible quantum objects”, he said they were already being used in quantum cryptography and will be used for quantum computing and quantum metrology and sensing. “Photonics is here to stay,” he said.

Dr John Lincoln, Principal Consultant at Harlin Ltd and Chief Executive of the Photonics Leadership Group, said that, relative to the rest of the EU, the UK photonics industry came joint second with the Netherlands and France in terms of output, though as defence was excluded from the figures this underestimated the UK’s strength. The Government had allocated £4.7bn to the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and submissions for spending on research into autonomous vehicles, sensors, lasers and compound semiconductors totalling £400m had been made. “We anticipate that outcomes will be announced in the autumn following an in-depth review over the summer,” he said.

Photonics can transform the UK, says IOP report launched on global day of light

Fenella Frost, from PhotonStar LED Group plc, said there had been a rapid increase in the efficiency of LEDs, which were becoming cheaper and lasting longer. LEDs now achieved an efficiency of 140 lumens per watt but developers had a target to achieve 200 lm/W by 2020. Almost every building now has LED lighting, she said, and one of the applications is in providing lighting to help people bring their body clock back into line with natural Circadian rhythms, especially in settings for elderly people. Research in this area focused on how to deliver what is effectively a drug, i.e. suitably tailored lighting, she said.

Participants also heard from Javad Anzalchi, System Architecture and Validation (Space Systems) at Airbus, who said that satellite communications currently use the radio frequency spectrum. This has limited bandwidth and the industry could not rely only on the current frequency spectrum to fulfil future demand. Moving to higher frequencies as well as using light-based systems could be a way forward, he said. The mass, power consumption and thermal dissipation of the payload is a limiting factor. While a metre of coaxial cable weighs 100g, a metre of fibre optic cable weighs only 2g. For example, in a light-based telecoms satellite payload, fibre optic cables could replace thousands of coaxial interconnecting cables, enabling substantial weight reduction, he said.

Dr Allan Colquhoun, of Leonardo and a council member of the Scottish Optoelectronics Association, said that although much imaging and sensing is still driven by silicon-based systems, the future belongs to quantum technology including quantum clocks, quantum computational imaging and sensing single photons.

John Bows, R&D director at PepsiCo R&D Global Snacks and chair of IOP’s Physics in Food Manufacturing Group, gave numerous examples of how photonics is used in food manufacturing, including using fibre optic thermometers to measure sub-surface temperatures and optical imaging systems to detect colour defects on production lines.

Dr Simon Andrews, of Fraunhofer UK Research Ltd, said the UK should be expecting to punch well above its weight in photonics and some companies in the sector were showing substantial percentage growth. Among the favourable conditions in the UK were a robust regulatory framework, R&D tax credits, the Government’s new Industrial Strategy – “with renewed emphasis on place and innovation,” he said – the industrial supply chain and links with academia.

Joining the others for a Q&A session, he agreed that the UK faced a skills shortage in the STEM sector, but said solving it went hand in hand with addressing the gender imbalance in STEM.

Photonics can transform the UK, says IOP report launched on global day of light

In a later session, Professor John Rarity (left), Professor of Quantum Communications Technologies at the University of Bristol, explained how the quantum properties of photons could be used to develop quantum cryptography. Early experimental work had matured into companies that could make quantum key distribution systems, he said, floating the possibility of quantum secured keys that could be topped up at an ATM. While quantum cryptography was currently secure, it could become vulnerable in the future if people started to build quantum computers, he said.

Richard Kirk (below left), Chief Executive of PolyPhotonix, described the use of photonics to save the sight of diabetics by using an eye mask rather than eye injections, which are highly invasive and have complications. The mask treats diabetic retinopathy by delivering a small amount of energy to the eye while the patient is asleep, the frequency of the light being exactly tuned to the requirements of rod photoreceptors in the eye.The treatment works on the principle of preventing the rods in the eye from dark adaptation, so as to reduce the oxygen demand of the eye at night, preventing hypoxia and the compromised blood vessel proliferation that results in diabetic retinopathy.

Photonics can transform the UK, says IOP report launched on global day of light

The condition is currently treated with an injection into the eye at a cost of about £1,000 per injection with an average of seven injections to each eye required annually. The treatment is also suitable for other retinal conditions, he said afterwards, though clinical trials have so far been limited to diabetic disease.

The final speaker was Professor Harald Haas, Professor of Mobile Communications at the University of Edinburgh and Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer at pureLiFi, which uses the light spectrum instead of radio frequencies to deliver wireless communication. He said the telecommunications sector was facing “spectrum crunch” as around 12,000 times the current bandwidth would be required within 20 years’ time. Contrary to misconceptions, LiFi was not limited to line-of-sight transmission, as the light could be reflected off walls, and it did work in sunlight, he said. It could work with off-the-shelf LEDs and the University Research Centre working closely with the company had used solar cells as receivers. “We see the merger of two industries – wireless communication and lighting,” he said. “Our vision is to take the photon out of fibre and into the air where it belongs.”

Our Chief Executive, Professor Paul Hardaker, said at the launch: “We were very proud to be part of the international team that lobbied for the year and then the day of light and the Institute has a whole host of events going on today.” Remarking on “how big the photonics sector is but how invisible it is”, he would be going on to a briefing on physics that the Government had requested, armed with the photonics report, he said.

Our Head of Science and Innovation, Anne Crean, commented: “The pace at which photonics is evolving is astonishing. We’re in the middle of a revolution essentially and it’s important that industry and academia are talking together, to understand the requirements but also to keep up to date with where technology is and what the capabilities are.”

A video with brief interviews from the launch event is available to view.

• Our former President Professor Sir Peter Knight and President-Elect Jonathan Flint gave evidence on quantum technologies to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on 5 June, along with professors David Delpy, Sir Michael Pepper and John Moreton, who are all IOP Fellows.

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