Caren B. Les, News Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org
“With more than 400 manufacturers of cutting-edge photonics technologies and a solid R&D base, French [photonics] companies have continuously delivered innovative new products that have ensured their strategic position in the global market,” said Samuel Bucourt, president of the Association Française de l’Optique et de la Photonique (AFOP).
And, he added, these strengths have translated into relative stability for the industry, with very few companies experiencing difficulties and most continuing to develop steadily. “Even with the current economic downturn, exports count for near 50 percent, on average, of French photonics companies’ income.”
“The French photonics industry is extremely diverse, producing goods for consumer, industrial and scientific markets,” said Bucourt, who noted that key industry-driving technologies include fiber optical networking equipment for ultrahigh-speed communication, lasers for a wide range of applications, LEDs, OLEDs, lighting, and sensors and detectors. “One of the key challenges in maintaining innovation and competitiveness is the continued participation in European and international collaborative projects.”
Targeting growth sectors where photonics technologies may offer an economic, ecological or functionally superior alternative to other technologies – defense, energy, security, medicine and scientific instrumentation – will be important for the French photonics industry’s future, he said.
All-optical communication is poised to be a major growth market over the next few years: There are several manufacturers of ultrahigh-speed fiber optical equipment in France, and numerous research projects are under way to secure the companies’ competitiveness in this domain, he added.
French companies are positioned to play a strong role in the optics sector, particularly in the area of providing instrumentation for large ground-based telescopes. In the domain of medical and fiber lasers, several companies recently announced new, patented laser technologies that have overcome the limitations of the commercial lasers currently available, Bucourt said.
On medical imaging and optical diagnosis, he said that strong collaborative efforts between industry and academe are yielding impressive results and a common understanding of the “race to the market” and are driving the sector in a number of domains, including confocal microscopy and ultrahigh-resolution nonlinear imaging.
Bucourt named the areas of nanotechnology, biophotonics, metrology, imaging, medicine, defense and security as the major application areas for French photonics technologies in upcoming years.
“Manufacturers in lasers, life sciences imaging, photovoltaics, industrial thermography and many other domains have recently unveiled truly innovative products that have tremendous market potential. Among the major goals of the French photonics industry is to develop public awareness of photonics’ potential to be the ‘industry of the future,’” he said.
Although the French photonics market is essentially composed of small companies well-known for their individual expertise and the quality of their products, he said, it is rare that these enterprises develop into major international players. The industry must increase the number of technology transfers and ensure that research yields marketable products, he noted. “We need to foster both intercompany and public-private collaboration on the national and international levels.”
The photonics production volume in France is valued at €5.4 billion, representing 12 percent of the European production volume and about 2.5 percent of the world market, according to the March 2009 report Photonics in Europe: Economic Impact, published by the European Technology Platform Photonics21, based in Düsseldorf, Germany.
John Dudley, chairman of the Quantum Electronics and Optics board of the European Physical Society, based in Mulhouse, France, and also a laboratory researcher with close links to industry, believes that the European Union’s strategic research policy of promoting photonics as an enabling/pervasive technology is leading to a diversity of applications where photonics is embedded.
Jay Liebowitz, executive vice president of Teem Photonics SA of Meylan, France, and president of Teem Photonics USA of Lafayette, Colo., said his company specializes in passively Q-switched Nd:YAG solid-state microchip lasers, whose pulse widths of hundreds of picoseconds place them in a niche between nanosecond actively Q-switched solid-state and <10-ps mode-locked lasers. The lasers have a broad variety of applications; among them, materials processing, Liebowitz said.
“We are always asking ourselves whether we should be controlling spending even more carefully or whether we need to accelerate development of new lasers,” he said. He added that the company is constantly developing ways to maintain the design simplicity and low cost of its lasers while increasing frequency control and average power.
Selectivity is key
Based in Besançon, France, Photline Technologies offers optical modulation products that are based on its lithium niobate modulators and radio-frequency electronics modules.
“Applications for the offerings are in all the areas where fiber optics are used,” said Philippe Le Roux, the company’s sales and marketing director. For telecommunications, Photline supplies quadrature phase-shift keying modulators to systems integrators and telecommunications R&D laboratories, as well as customized 40-Gb/s modulation units. Defense is another segment where the need for optical modulation is high, he said.
“As Photline Technologies gains recognition, it is offered more projects, and a major issue is becoming selective,” he said. “The demand for new products and projects is growing faster than our internal human resources.”
High-power lasers and life sciences imaging
Imagine Optic SA’s component line includes the Haso family of high-precision Shack-Hartmann wavefront sensors, deformable mirrors for wavefront shaping and correction, and software. Based in Orsay, France, the company offers turnkey systems that integrate its component technologies with its expertise in wavefront analysis and adaptive optics.
The company is collaborating with several research groups, said Bucourt, who also is CEO of Imagine Optic. Research areas include the ILE (Extreme Light Institute) project, in Palaiseau, France, which is a prototype, smaller version of the soon-to-be-built ELI (Extreme Light Infrastructure) ultrapowerful laser. Among other research areas, the company is cooperating to produce commercially available nonlinear microscopes equipped with adaptive optics that will offer features such as higher resolution, improved image quality, enhanced focal depths and greater image contrast.
The company plans to give high priority to applications in life sciences imaging and industrial process control, particularly in the areas of optical component and surface characterization.
Imagine Eyes, sister company of Imagine Optic and also based in Orsay, supplies wavefront analysis and adaptive optics products for ophthalmic applications, according to Mark Zacharria, the company’s director of marketing communications. The company’s primary challenge is to bring a cellular-level retinal camera to the clinical market as soon as possible, he said.
Life in the imaging market
“E2v semiconductors SAS of Saint-Egrève, France, is one of the six design, development and manufacturing facilities of e2v [technologies plc], a component and subsystem specialist group based in Chelmsford, UK,” said Christophe Robinet, business development manager for the company’s Imaging Devices Div.
The division consolidates activities in CCD and CMOS sensors and subsystems for applications in space, astronomy, machine vision, the life sciences, the medical field and automated data collection. “The engineers in Grenoble, France, along with the teams in Chelmsford, contribute to the overall knowledge base for the demanding requirements we serve,” he said.
Among the innovative products recently released are the following: a plug-and-play USB CMOS integrated x-ray dental intraoral sensor; high-speed machine vision multiline cameras; and low-noise but high-data-rate cameras for ophthalmology.
Robinet said that e2v remains well positioned to operate as a key partner and supplier in the high-end imaging market in Europe and the US and in the emerging Asian market.
Global technology supplier Thales AS, based in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, recently merged its lasers and optronics businesses. Located in Élancourt, France, the combined operation, called Laser Solutions Unit, Thales Optronique, will enable Thales to develop its laser business by investing in specific technical and industrial facilities and by exploiting synergies with the optronics business, said Denis Levaillant, managing director of the new entity.
The company’s Gaia-R Nd:YAG lasers open new possibilities in the industrial application of laser shot peening, and its Etna series lasers have applications in photovoltaics and microelectronics manufacturing. Thales uses nanosecond lasers, including the Gaia-R, to pump its femtosecond systems – such as in its petawatt offerings, which are used in research laboratories worldwide, Levaillant said. “For the longer term, the company is developing new products for military applications, he added.
The Thales laser business is set to achieve 20 percent growth per year over the next three years, he noted.
Challenges for French photonics researchers
The role of CNRS, the French National Center for Scientific Research, is about to change: Much of its research activity will be transferred to universities, according to Patrick Meyrueis, scientific director of the Laboratoire des Systèmes Photoniques, which is located at the site of École Nationale Supérieure de Physique de Strasbourg in Illkirch, France.
The problem is that many photonics teams, which tend to be smaller in number, will be integrated into larger laboratory teams dedicated to electronics, robotics or telecommunications, he said. As a result, photonics teams could lose opportunities for fundamental photonics research, which could result in the development of fewer photonics breakthroughs, he warned.
“Unfortunately, the number of doctoral degrees conferred in photonics in France annually is slowly decreasing, which will eventually lead to fewer engineers who will consider photonics as a possible resource for solving electronic and mechanical problems,” Meyrueis said.