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Photonics Is Heating Up in India

Photonics Spectra
Dec 2009
Marie Freebody, Contributing Editor, mariefreebody@physics.org

India is the seventh-largest country by geographical area and the second-most populous in the world. With approximately 1.17 billion people, it is second only to China, which has 1.34 billion. Situated in south Asia, between Pakistan, China and Nepal, India is bounded by the world’s highest mountain chain – the snow-covered Himalayas – in the north, stretching southward to tropical rain forests and sandy deserts.

Its economy is as diverse as its landscape, ranging from traditional village farming, modern agriculture and a whole host of services. Photonics is still in its infancy in the country, generating approximately $500 million every year. But thanks to a mushrooming telecommunications sector, many believe that photonics will play a vital role in India’s future development.

“Optical communication is an area that is going to drive the Indian economy,” said professor Perumal Ramamurthy, director of the National Centre for Ultrafast Processes at the University of Madras in Chennai, India. “With its huge population, India has massive potential for extensive growth in this sector for both general communication as well as broadband Internet.”

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(Top) Bhuvana Thiruvelu, a postdoctoral research associate at the Birck Nanotechnology Center in Purdue’s Discovery Park, demonstrates her research in which carbon nanotubes are grown from palladium nanoparticles on what’s called a “buckypaper” sheet. (Purdue News Service photo submitted by Jeff Goecker.) (Bottom) Shown is an LED chip bonding process at Kwality Photonics Pvt. Ltd. in Hyderabad, India. Courtesy of Kwality Photonics.

As seen elsewhere in the photonics industry, biomedical optics, particularly microscopy, endoscopy and skin treatment, as well as photovoltaics are all major areas in India’s growing photonics map. Optical computing, defense, new materials for sensors and devices are also sectors to watch in the country.

Photonics hot spots

On the whole, India’s photonics companies are clustered around universities and research institutes, which are in Bangalore, Cochin and Hyderabad, all in southern India.

With only about 24 photonics companies in the country, employing about 200 engineers and between 800 and 1000 technicians/operators, jobs still are limited in the industry.

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A research scholar at the National Centre for Ultrafast Processes performs a fluorescence confocal experiment. Courtesy of the National Centre for Ultrafast Processes.

Arguably the biggest home-grown photonics players are SFO Technologies of Cochin, Sterlite Optical Technologies Ltd. of Pune, Tejas Networks India Ltd. and Optocircuits (India) Ltd., both of Bangalore, and Kwality Photonics Pvt. Ltd. of Hyderabad. These companies, as well as India’s industry as a whole, benefit from proximity to important Indian Ocean trade routes, providing vital links to Africa, East Asia, Europe and the Americas.

SFO Technologies, part of the NeST Group, operates in software development, hardware manufacturing, optoelectronics, fiber optics and broadband solutions. Dr. Suresh Nair, chief technology officer for the NeST Group and executive council member of the Optical Society of India (OSI), attributes the company’s success to the high-level technical skill of its staff and to its ability to communicate in English.

Vijaya Kumar Gupta Kopuri, managing director of LED manufacturer Kwality Photonics, agrees. “India offers a huge market as well as a massive workforce, both at the factory floor and engineering level. This is a great advantage for Indian firms.”

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Inside SFO Technologies, engineers manufacture active photonics systems. Courtesy of the NeST Group.

Besides the country’s domestic companies, India is home to the design centers of global companies such as US giant IPG Photonics Corp. of Oxford, Mass., the French-formed Alcatel-Lucent, Honeywell, Cisco, Cienna, Tyco Electronics and Alphion, to name a few.

Nair said that the attractions for foreign companies are government subsidies and low interest rates. The government also recently stipulated that a minimum 40 percent of system contribution must come from local sources, which means that many industry giants are keen to partner with local photonics companies.

The workforce

There are only a handful of universities and institutes that specialize in optics and photonics research, and the limited job opportunities have had a secondary effect on these academic centers, which often find that attracting photonics students can be a problem.

“We find that not many students are coming forward to enroll in photonics courses, compared with other courses, because there aren’t enough industrial openings available in the country,” Ramamurthy said. “Students prefer to pursue higher education within the country or go abroad looking for work.”

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Students at Raman Research Institute set up a nonlinear light absorption experiment. Courtesy of Manoj Sudhakaran.

But Reji Philip, assistant professor at the Raman Research Institute, disagrees. “We don’t find any particular difficulty in attracting students into the optics/photonics stream. In the doctoral program at the Raman Research Institute, we currently have around 20 percent enrolled in the Light and Matter Physics Group.”

OSI was formed in 1965 in a bid to promote photonics in the country. The society organizes regular national conferences and publishes the Journal of Optics, which enjoys a wide circulation in India.

The Photonics Society of India was formed more recently, in 2000. Its main objective is to create a network of researchers, scientists, educators and industrialists who are interested in taking part in photonics-related programs in the country. Most of its committee members are made up of scientists at India’s leading research institutes and national laboratories, including the Raman Research Institute and the International School of Photonics at Cochin University of Science and Technology.

Government support

For the most part, the photonics industry receives minimum support from the Indian government. “The Department of Information Technology supports industries as well as academic institutes by sponsoring projects in thrust areas, but there is no special consideration for photonics industries,” Nair said.

Recently, however, the government recognized the potential of optical communication and reduced some of its controls on foreign trade and investment. By permitting higher limits on foreign direct investment in a few key areas, such as telecommunications, the government has helped strengthen this sector.

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A student at the Raman Research Institute aligns an ultrafast laser system. Courtesy of Manoj Sudhakaran.

A major challenge facing Indian photonics companies is competing with Chinese vendors, who often undercut Indian manufacturers. “Many fiber components are imported from China with no duty – the product descriptions are carefully worded so as to avoid this tax – and they are dumped on the local market,” Nair said. “While Indian component manufacturers provide high-quality goods, the customers or installers will often look for the lowest quote. There are even instances where you purchase two couplers, and another one is given free of charge just in case one fails.”

Another issue, Nair said, is Chinese companies, such as Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. of Shenzhen, that participate in Indian government tenders. Indian counterparts cannot match the cost competency.

What now?

Quality does not seem to be the issue for Indian photonics. Many of the country’s designs and products are privately labeled and can be found in telecommunications, health care and other industries around the globe. For example, SFO Technologies’ fiber distribution systems for multidwelling units are now being used by US broadband and telecommunications specialist Verizon.

According to Kwality Photonics’ Kopuri, the country appears to be on the verge of a photonics explosion. Despite entering the LED industry early in the 1970s, India has yet to see large-scale manufacturing or a proliferation of entrepreneurs in the field. But this may all be about to change.

“I predict sizable investments to be made in LED chip and LED packaging lines in anticipation of exploding demand in India for LED-based lamps,” he said. “Kwality Photonics is ready to partner with forward-looking technology firms to produce 120-lumen-per-watt LEDs.”

But the photonics industry in India has a long way to go before it reaches its peak. A bottleneck in its growth is the limited component and material base. This makes the industry reliant on foreign sources. To ensure the industry’s success, Ramamurthy believes that huge investments are required.

The Raman Research Institute’s Philip agrees. “I don’t foresee any quantum jump in industry revenues in the near future. To ensure success, the foreign export component first needs to be strengthened.”


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