Caren B. Les, News Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org
With the launch of the Institute of Photonics and Optical Science (IPOS) in April 2009, scientists at the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, now can draw on the research and teaching expertise of the university’s schools of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and electrical and information engineering, as well as from its electron microscope unit.
Professor Ben Eggleton, director of IPOS, a newly launched photonics center at the University of Sydney, is shown in the terabit-per-second laboratory explaining progress in recent research to Sen. Anne McEwen of South Australia. Courtesy of IPOS.
The institute’s new master of photonics program, which is scheduled to begin operation next year, already is experiencing good levels of interest, according to professor Simon Fleming, IPOS deputy director and head of business development. The university has an international reputation for teaching at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels and has drawn together teaching staff and world-leading researchers from the various disciplines within IPOS to create an exciting and current master’s program, he said. The goal is to build up teaching activities to reach the same level of success as the school’s research operations.
To keep in line with the core concept of IPOS, which is that photonics is becoming important across so many areas, the new institute plans to diversify its activities and funding over the next five years or so, particularly across application areas and funding sources, Fleming said. The hope is that this strategy will increase the institute’s impact and relevance and mitigate the risks of being linked too strongly to one application area.
Fleming said that the institute’s goal also is to construct a building to house state-of-the-art cleanrooms and other infrastructure necessary to undertake initiatives in the areas of nanophotonics and nanoscience.
High-impact projects at IPOS
With Danish and Chinese collaborators, researchers at IPOS demonstrated optical switching of signals at close to 1 terabit per second, said Fleming, adding that their approach was based on a scheme known as four-wave mixing in a highly nonlinear chalcogenide glass waveguide. He noted that this record-breaking result generated international media attention and shows enormous potential for ultrahigh-speed signal processing for terabit-per-second communications.
An example of green photonics – a photonic chip capable of low-power optical switching – has been developed at the institute. Fleming said that this breakthrough is critical because the exorbitant energy demands currently placed on the electronic information routers are estimated to reach a crisis point by 2013. The key factor behind this discovery, he added, is that the material used in the photonic integrated circuit is well-proven and available. It is a high-refractive-index version of the glass in typical optical fiber, which, when combined with the novel device design, enables operations to be performed with more than a million times less power than previously required in glass circuits.
Researchers at IPOS have pioneered microstructured polymer optical fiber that allows them to make and study structures that would be difficult to make in silica and to which they incorporate material additives such as dyes, quantum dots and metal inclusions. Fleming said that a particularly interesting fiber is a graded-index multimode type fabricated froma single material – with the grading provided by distribution of airholes – which has a large core and a high bandwidth and which could be produced extremely economically for fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) or fiber-in-the-home (FITH) applications.
A new device, called a “photonic lantern,” has been developed that has applications in the field of astrophotonics, he said. In astronomy, multimode fibers are used to gather optical signals. However, most photonic signal processing devices are single mode. To enable the use of single-mode devices in conjunction with multimode fibers, a taper in the photonic lantern allows a multimode fiber to pass through and to split into a large number of single-mode fibers. This device has demonstrated superb results, he said, adding that it allows fiber Bragg gratings to be used to filter a large number of interfering signals in multimode fiber across a very broad spectral range, providing high signal clarity.
The Australian photonics market and the global financial crisis
Because Australia represents a small part of the world’s economy – about 1 or 2 percent – its photonics companies must be “born global” to achieve a sufficient market for their products, said Fleming, adding that, in this respect, Australian companies seem to be as exposed to the financial crisis as any other country’s, despite a somewhat healthier local economy.
He suggested that the photonics companies in Australia actually may be faring somewhat better. Although the world may be buying less, those buying decisions are more influenced by cost, he said. In Australia, the traditional low cost of even highly skilled labor has been coupled with currency movements that have made its manufactured photonics components even more competitive.
National Broadband Network
There are a few important areas that stand out from these broad trends, Fleming said.
The Australian government recently announced that, over eight years, it will establish a company that will invest up to $43 billion to build and operate the National Broadband Network, a project that will serve to deliver superfast broadband to the country’s homes and workplaces.
One main goal of the network, which will be built in partnership with the private sector, will be to connect 90 percent of all Australian homes, schools and workplaces with broadband services via optical fiber with speeds up to 100 megabits per second – 100 times faster than those currently used by many households and businesses. The network will provide fiber optic transmission links connecting cities, major regional centers and rural towns. Other goals include connecting all other premises in Australia with next-generation wireless and satellite technologies that will deliver broadband speeds of 12 megabits per second.
Envisioned as a major nation-building program, the project is expected to help drive Australia’s productivity, improve the delivery of education and health services, and connect big cities and regional centers. One of its aims is to directly support up to 25,000 local jobs a year, on average, over the life of the project.
Fleming said that, although few details are known about the network’s implementation, the project is expected to represent a huge change in the domestic market for photonic equipment and fiber.
There also are steadily developing opportunities, primarily in the domestic market, for photonics outside telecommunications that do not yet appear to be perturbed by the economic downturn, said Fleming, adding that small companies are addressing applications in the health monitoring, medical, power, security and defense sectors.
Domestic opportunities for the Australian photonics market also may arise from some important initiatives in astronomy and space science announced in the recent national budget, Fleming said.
For example, in its 2009-10 budget, the government announced that it will invest $160.5 million in its space science and astronomy programs between 2012 and 2013.
The investment is expected to improve the country’s chances for hosting an extremely large and powerful telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Western Australia is one of two possible hosts for the $3 billion international project, which will be designed to probe the universe for earthlike planets and to observe first objects and examine the mysteries of dark energy. A supercomputer will be required to process the data collected by the telescope. The project is expected to have a significant economic impact on the host country. Of the $160.5 million, $80 million will be spent to establish a high-performance computing and science center in Perth for the SKA.
Solar cell technology
Solar cell technology is expected to grow significantly in Australia over the next few years, in the opinion of Min Gu, professor (chairman) of optoelectronics and director of the Centre for Micro-Photonics at Swinburne University of Technology in Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia. He does not believe that there will be a significant change in the Australian photonics market as a result of the global economic downturn.
Gu said that the major goals for the center are to develop innovative nanophotonics devices for all-optical information technology, to advance optoelectronic imaging methods for biological studies and industrial applications, and to understand mechanisms for light interaction with biological materials. Projects involving nanoplasmonic solar cells, nonlinear optical endoscopy and multidimensional optical data storage are in progress at the center.
Swinburne and Suntech Power, based in China, are collaborating to create a new generation of solar cells, according to a June 2009 press release from the university. Their aim is to develop solar cells that are twice as efficient and half as expensive as the existing technology. Based on the development of nanoplasmonic solar cells, the technology will allow for the efficient collection of solar energy in a wider color range than with other cells currently in development. Gu will lead the research and development effort at Swinburne, and Suntech Power will manage the manufacturing and other commercialization aspects. It is expected that the cells will be ready for manufacture within five years.
Also, researchers at the Centre for Micro-Photonics have demonstrated a five-dimensional optical recording technique using the polarization of light and its wavelength as two dimensions in addition to the three spatial dimensions. The method, which consists of using a substrate of gold nanorods immersed in polymer, has the potential to increase storage capacities by several orders of magnitude. The report on this research appears in the May 21, 2009, issue of Nature.
Breaking broadband barriers
The outlook in Australia is positive, particularly because the government has announced that it will facilitate the rollout of funding for the National Broadband Network, according to Rodney Stuart Tucker, research director at the Australian Research Council (ARC) Special Research Centre for Ultra-Broadband Information Networks (CUBIN), which is based at the University of Melbourne in Victoria. Tucker said the rollout will be the largest single infrastructure initiative in Australia’s history and will provide an enormous boost to the optoelectronics industry.
He said that lightwave technology, especially fiber-to-the-premises, is expected to grow significantly in Australia over the next few years, and that the biggest challenges facing the photonics industry there are likely to be associated with network design, equipment supply and shortages of skilled labor.
Research in extended-reach passive optical networks for rural and remote areas also is in progress at the university, Tucker said. A collaborative project on the social benefits of broadband also is under way and will involve researchers from medicine, education and other areas, he said.
With assistance from equipment vendors, CUBIN is establishing a fiber-to-the-home test bed aimed at providing a comprehensive facility for evaluating equipment and services for the National Broadband Network. “In addition to enabling cross-vendor interoperability tests, this facility will provide opportunities for researchers and service providers to test new applications for 100-Mb/s services,” Tucker said.
In collaboration with NICTA, Australia’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Centre of Excellence, CUBIN is home to a major research program in coded orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (COFDM) for very high bit rate communications. Using COFDM, researchers at NICTA and CUBIN recently demonstrated the transmission of data at 1 terabit per second over 600 km. A spinoff company of NICTA, Monitoring Division Inc. of East Melbourne, is developing sophisticated performance-monitoring equipment for high-capacity optical trunk transmission systems.
Tucker said that a major part of CUBIN’s research is focused on “green” aspects of photonics. His group has developed a comprehensive energy model of the Internet that has helped identify the greenhouse impact of the Internet.
“If we exclude data centers and end-user equipment such as personal computers, the Internet uses about 0.5 percent of all electricity,” Tucker said. The photonics component of the Internet uses only a small part of this 0.5 percent. The photonics transmission part of the Internet is very efficient, he noted. His group also is investigating the potential carbon footprint of increased penetration of photonic switching in the network.
Although 2008 was the final year that CUBIN received core funding from ARC, the center will continue to pursue its ongoing research programs until at least 2011, according to its annual report. In 2009, research will progress in areas such as the greening of the Internet, alternative optical network architectures to overcome the limits of growth, and optical fiber transmission systems in both core and access networks.
Research at CUBIN is conducted by staff members at the university, research fellows and students associated with the center, and by academic visitors and collaborators from around the world.
Locally made optics
Francis Lord Optics, a division of Avtronics (Australia) Pty. Ltd., manufactures a wide range of precision optics, including prisms, lenses, mirrors, laser windows and reference flats. The company works with a diverse selection of glasses and can achieve tolerances of up to 1/10 of a wavelength of light, according to Glenn Davis, a representative of the business, which is based in Gladesville, New South Wales.
Davis said that the company has a close association with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization as well as with many universities, both domestic and foreign. It has fabricated optics for the Australian military, the Anglo-Australian Telescope and a variety of privately owned companies, he added.
In the wake of the economic downturn, the company has risen to the challenge and broken into new arenas that it normally would not have considered, including optics for the art world and for the architectural lighting industry, and it has increased its involvement in research and development.
“We are continually looking for and at ideas where optics can be used as an alternative medium,” Davis said, adding that he hopes there will continue to be a need for Australian-made optical products, despite the attraction to get things made cheaper overseas.