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  • Dutch Photonics Strives for Smaller, Faster and Cheaper

Dec 2010
Marie Freebody, Contributing Editor,

Located in North-West Europe and bordering the North Sea, Belgium and Germany, the Netherlands is well positioned as a key trading center. It has excellent transport links, including Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, recognized as one of the major hubs in Europe, as well as the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest seaport.

It is little surprise then that it is home to many successful photonics companies and attracts a global photonics presence.

The Netherlands’ approximately 200 photonics companies together generate an annual turnover of about €5.5 billion ($7.7 billion). Two photonics powerhouses that together contribute approximately 70 percent of this revenue are electronics giant Philips of Amsterdam and lithography specialist ASML of Veldhoven.

Top: In the foyer of the newly renovated Concert Hall Frits Philips Eindhoven in the Netherlands, ceiling-mounted LEDs from Philips Design Consulting provide illuminated pathways to guide people to the bar during the break. Bottom: Inside the hall, Philips aims to influence people’s experiences through the application of light, images and sound. Center: Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam showcases the Innovative Gate, which was designed by Philips to provide air passengers with a more pleasurable and relaxing experience. Top and bottom photos courtesy of Frank Tielemans; center images courtesy of Intos Interior Contracting.

Traditionally, the strength of Dutch photonics has been in lighting, driven primarily by Philips, and in manufacturing for high-end applications such as semiconductor chips, which is largely dominated by ASML.

The Dutch government is keen to support growth in these areas, and 2010 has seen the initiation of the second phase of a two-part road map for its photonics industry.

The road map began in 2006 with the creation of the Innovation-Oriented Research Programme Photonic Devices committee. Established with the support of the Dutch ministry of economic affairs, the program was awarded a budget of more than €20 million ($28 million) and tasked with bringing more focus and momentum to Dutch photonics.

The ultimate aim is to rank Dutch research and companies right up there with those of the seven leading countries in two key areas: advanced light sources and detection systems, and the application of photonic devices in health and medicine.

From 2006 to 2009, the focus was on developing advanced light sources and detection systems. This year saw the start of a four-year program that turned the country’s focus toward developing new photonic devices based on generic technology, health care and medicine.

Another Dutch organization whose goal is to cultivate a healthy industry is the Photonics Cluster Netherlands (PCN), which was initiated by the Dutch Society for Photonics. Co-supported by TNO Science and Industry in Delft, it will provide a platform for knowledge transfer in photonics for industry and academia in the country.

“The PCN focuses on strengthening the network of photonics companies and research groups, both within the Netherlands and abroad,” said Bart Snijders, PCN chairman and business developer at TNO Science and Industry. “The network activities are mainly targeted at increasing the economic activity in the field of photonics.”

Philips enjoys a well-established culture of working closely with research groups and industry. Although it has multiple sites throughout the world, with sectors covering lighting, health care and consumer lifestyles, the technology innovation is mainly concentrated in the Eindhoven region of the Netherlands.

Dutch concert hall gets an LED makeover

Three years ago, Wim Vringer, director of the Concert Hall Frits Philips Eindhoven, imagined a new experience for concertgoers that involved light, images and sound. Now, thanks to Philips Design Consulting, his vision has become a reality.

“The Concert Hall Frits Philips Eindhoven is regarded by some as one of the finest concert venues in Europe, mainly due to its excellent acoustics,” said Menno Dieperink, art director at Philips Design. “There was a feeling that the communal areas and exterior still had something of a provincial feel. Vringer wanted to offer his public a world-class environment to match the quality of the concert halls and of the performing artists.”

The results include illuminated pathways that use built-in ceiling LEDs from Philips to subtly guide people to the bar during breaks; three Italian chandeliers to add a touch of grandeur to the ambience; and a 13-m purpose-built couch with integrated LEDs that illuminate a path between people as they sit in various positions along its length.

Philips Design has an 85-year history in the Netherlands and abroad. Jos Stuyfzand, director of the company’s Ambient Experience Design, said, “The first Ambient Experience environments were in health care facilities, where they help to ease patient anxiety, improve conditions for staff and boost the external image of the hospital or clinic – an important consideration in an ever-commercializing health care landscape. We now also implement Philips Ambient Experience Design in other sectors, like hospitality and transport.”

An example of this can be found at the Innovative Gate at Schiphol Airport, where Philips aims to provide a more pleasurable and relaxing experience than your average departure gate offers with a combination of LEDs, multimedia and physical restyling. The new gate also is said to help airlines speed up security and check-in processes as well as to boost their brand image.

But with Philips repositioning itself toward health and well-being, its lighting know-how is being applied in other domains, including minimally invasive health care. A new field under investigation is the effect of light on organic cells, which includes water purification, light-based therapy, the development of a light-based epilator and growth aid for crops in warehouses.

Miniaturizing photonics boosts medical market

New developments in photonic components not only enables miniaturization of optics-based medical devices, but also will reduce the overall price of such devices, said Dr. Henricus J.C.M. “Dick” Sterenborg, a researcher at Erasmus MC Center for Optical Diagnosis and Therapy in Rotterdam. Sterenborg is co-founder of Luminostix, also of Rotterdam, which commercializes differential path length spectroscopy – a technique developed at Erasmus.

Optical measurements during bowel surgery are carried out to measure the vascular properties in the surgical field. Courtesy of Luminostix b.v.

“As a consequence, optics-based medical devices will become cheaper and can in the future be used in much broader fields of application, such as the dentist’s office or in home care,” he said. “This will enormously boost the market.”

Reflecting the trend to minimize is the Memphis Project (merging electronics and micro- and nanophotonics in integrated systems), a consortium of more than 20 Dutch companies and academic institutions that includes Philips, ASML, Lionix, AMC Laser Centre and TNO.

The project aims to miniaturize and standardize optical technology and to integrate with electronics. The hope is to open up new applications for the use of light in medical diagnostics, health care, entertainment, telecommunications, tracking and positioning.

Within this framework, the University of Twente in Enschede and the Academic Medical Center, one of the largest hospitals in the Netherlands, are working on developing a miniature optical coherence tomography device.

EUV forges a new era for chip makers

But it is not just size that is important. For lithography systems maker ASML, smaller, faster and cheaper are at the top of the agenda. The company currently is shipping its new NXE:3100 lithography machine, which employs extreme-ultra-violet (EUV) light to provide an imaging capability close to 20 nm.

ASML’s NXE:3100 extreme-UV lithography system. Courtesy of ASML.

Lithography machines have progressed from using UV light sources with a wavelength of 365 nm to deep-UV sources of 248 and 193 nm, improving the resolution at every step. EUV marks the next milestone in this progress and will enable chip makers to reduce the size and increase the functionality of microchips and consumer electronics equipment.

“Current lithography technology has been pushed further than many would have thought possible even five years ago, but this has come at the cost of increasing complexity and shrinking margins of error,” said Jojanneke Strijbos, a corporate communications officer at ASML. “The industry has had to reach deep into a bag of tricks to continue shrinking features sizes.

“With EUV, chip makers will be able to again expose a critical layer in one single step – so no double patterning. EUV also has a credible path from the initial 27-nm resolution to below 10 nm.”

Enticing students into optical careers

With so many high-tech companies in the country – including small and medium enterprises (SMEs) such as Avantes, a spectroscopy and fiber optics producer, and Genexis, a fiber-to-the-home equipment maker – the demand for optical scientists and engineers is high.

Photonics companies typically recruit from one of three technical universities in the Netherlands, each with a strong physics department: Delft University of Technology, the University of Twente and Eindhoven University.

At Delft, a new focus on teaching classical optical design is being introduced to better prepare students for their next step into industry.

“One of our new initiatives is to start a collaboration between European research groups that are still active in optical design,” said professor Paul Urbach, who heads up the Optics Research Group at Delft. “Classical optical design is not taught in many universities anymore, but, nevertheless, it is a very important subject for industry – in particular for SMEs.”

To attract students into optical studies, the group has set up internships in industry from which students can select from a number of interesting projects.

“For general applied physics students, it is true that they often choose more fancy-sounding subjects, such as biophysics or quantum information,” Urbach said. “To attract students, we try to bring across the message that optics is actually very exciting and also very important for industry. Furthermore, after graduating in optics, it is easy to get a job, and it is possible to stay in the field because the demand for optical scientists and engineers is high.”

For Avantes’ technical director Benno Oderkerk it can be a struggle to find staff with the necessary qualifications. “It is definitely a problem to find photonics professionals. We have hired international professionals, but also taken onboard technical engineers from other fields, such as mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, and trained them in photonics ourselves.”

But, according to the Photonics Cluster Netherlands’ Snijders, the photonics landscape could be set to change in the Netherlands with future plans by some of the larger organizations to move to countries with lower salary levels. That said, thanks to the significant expansion of SMEs, he expects the total size of the photonics sector to stay at the current level.

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