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  • Photonics Advances in the ‘Land of Ideas’

Mar 2015
Justine Murphy, Editor,

The Abbe refractometer. The stauroscope. The Easter Bunny, the modern tradition of Christmas trees, and the accordion.

All of these originated in Germany, and each has made a significant impact on the world. And the country’s innovative spirit of past decades shows no sign of decline. The field of photonics is an especially exciting example of this.

Photonics plays an integral role in Germany’s economy and industrial development. The government stands behind it with great support, as it considers photonics “a crucial plank in the economy of the future, and is going to great lengths to ensure the country maintains its preeminence,” according to Germany Trade & Invest, the country’s economic development agency.

Advances in Li-Fi

The optical wireless communications technology known as visible-light communication (VLC) – coined Li-Fi by its creator, Dr. Harald Haas of the University of Edinburgh – essentially uses standard LED light fixtures to deliver wireless Internet hot spots. Some now are looking at Li-Fi as a potential alternative to Wi-Fi and other broadband communications technologies.

Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems is a leader in developing innovative ways to use Li-Fi technology.
Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems is a leader in developing innovative ways to use Li-Fi technology. Courtesy of Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems.

“It’s probably not a one-to-one replacement for established Wi-Fi technology … [but] it’s a very good alternative in industrial environments, where electromagnetic fields are undesirable, [or in] surgery, where a Wi-Fi network might interfere with sensitive equipment, and so on,” said Dr. Michael Scholles, director of business development and strategy at the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems in Dresden, Germany.

Although Li-Fi was not invented by German researchers, Fraunhofer is at the forefront of developing innovative ways to take advantage of it. Scholles is leading efforts to create products based on VLC for industrial applications, messaging, radio-frequency (RF) sensitive hospital settings, data broadcasting, and air travel where traditional wireless communication is not available.

Fraunhofer already is providing infrared Li-Fi test kits to industrial clients. The institute recently unveiled its first product that combines the use of light sources and data communications.

The VLC luminary system uses conventional LED light to produce a data rate of 500 Mb/s over 4 m, and 120 Mb/s over 20 m. The system is applicable to near-infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths. It enhances privacy by shielding with opaque surfaces and provides wireless links in RF-noisy environments. The new system features add-on components that offer transmission speeds up to 3 Gb/s and bandwidth up to 180 MHz.

Graphene, liquid crystals and more

The use of graphene, another emerging concept, also is an area in which German researchers are leading the pack. Germany will host two graphene-focused conferences this year: Graphene Live! Europe 2015, to be held April 27-30 in Berlin, will focus on 3-D printing, wearable technologies, and energy harvesting and storage. The colocated Printed Electronics symposium April 28-29 will look at the commercialization of printed, organic and flexible electronics, and includes an exhibition, demonstrations and presentations.

Graphene has displayed electron redistribution through Auger scattering.
Graphene has displayed electron redistribution through Auger scattering. Courtesy of Voigt/Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden Rossendorf.

The Graphene Summit: Applications, Technologies & Opportunities, set for May 21-22 in Berlin, will present the latest applications, technologies and emerging opportunities for graphene and graphene-based materials. The event also will feature the latest developments in graphene production methods for wide-scale commercialization; criteria for graphene investment opportunities; updates on the application of graphene in electronics; and information about the application and commercialization of graphene-based materials in energy storage, aerospace and barrier applications.

A group led by Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden Rossendorf is studying the dynamics of electrons in graphene under strong magnetic fields. This phenomenon could lead to new types of broadband lasers as well as those that produce light with arbitrarily adjustable wavelengths in the infrared and terahertz ranges.

Another major research contribution from Germany is the work of Dr. Stefan W. Hell, director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. Hell was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work circumventing the diffraction limit to achieve nanoscale images via stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy.

Research institutes are not alone in the development of light-based solutions. Göttingen-based Abberior Instruments GmbH – a startup spun off the Department of NanoBiophotonics at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry – introduced the first commercially developed RESOLFT-based superresolution microscope, for which the company received the German Industry’s 2014 Innovation Award. The new microscope enables sharp images of the smallest cell structures but, unlike traditional high-resolution techniques, the light it requires is significantly less intense. It shows potential particularly for life sciences and medical applications, and it has vast commercial possibilities, according to Abberior.

Merck KGaA of Darmstadt, Germany, has developed a liquid crystal mixture called Licrivision. When used in windows, it adjusts the intensity of incident daylight in just seconds, reducing energy consumption in buildings. Placed between two panes of glass, the crystals are brought into various alignments with the application of voltage. The technique has the potential to optimize light and thermal impact on glazed surfaces, conserving significant amounts of energy, the company said.

Several innovative products and technologies from German companies were recognized this year as finalists for Prism Awards. The annual international awards competition, presented by Photonics Media and SPIE, recognizes innovative products that contribute significantly to various segments of the photonics industry.

German finalists in 2015 included:

• LithoProf3D, from Multiphoton Optics GmbH of Würzburg, Germany. This component-first technology creates high-speed optical interconnects after the assembly of optical components, which simplifies the photonic packaging process, enables passive alignment for packages using single-mode optics, lowers costs and saves energy.

• MARWIS, developed by G. Luft GmbH of Fellbach, Germany. This mobile sensor measures road surface conditions and detects water-film height, dew point, road surface temperature, ice percentage, friction and relative humidity. The technology provides increased safety and control for winter road maintenance services, as well as comprehensive weather data for documentation.

• TWI 60, created by Mahr GmbH of Göttingen, Germany. This tilted-wave interferometer uses many different light sources on a surface, each with a different tilt of the wavefront in front of the surface under test. It measures optics without reference elements and acquires data in less than a minute without repositioning the test surface.

German companies are among global market leaders in optical technologies, according to Germany Trade & Invest. In fact, they were responsible for 43 percent of European production in 2012.

Programs and initiatives

As a country, Germany is especially encouraging in the technical sector, with a number of programs and initiatives centered around research and technological advancement.

The portal Research in Germany, created through an initiative by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), offers programs that focus on biophotonics, ultrashort-pulse lasers, OLEDs and – perhaps the biggest players – photovoltaic technologies.

Germany’s solar engineering sector makes up at least 50 percent of the world market, according to BMBF. The government-maintained Photovoltaic Innovation Alliance is supporting the country’s efforts to secure and expand business in the photovoltaics industry and to be an international competitor.

Germany’s solar engineering sector represents at least 50 percent of the world’s photonics market.
Germany’s solar engineering sector represents at least 50 percent of the world’s photonics market.

BMBF programs also include the Green Talents International Forum for High Potentials in Sustainable Development, which promotes the nation’s research and innovation strengths and fosters a global exchange of ideas on sustainable development.

Many companies are seeking and finding new ways to use lasers, as the devices’ flexibility and contact-free, wear-free operation has proved advantageous for materials processing. Assisting them is the BMBF-funded Photonic Processes and Tools for Resource-Efficient Lightweight Construction program, the goal of which is to use light to overcome obstacles to wide-scale introduction of lightweight materials in mass-production processes.

Such programs would not be possible without funding. Over the past decade, BMBF has dedicated R&D funding and support under two programs: Optical Technologies – Made in Germany, and Photonics Research Germany: Light with a Future. By 2021, BMBF expects to allot nearly €1 billion for photonics research and development.

The Photonik 2020 initiative, started in 2011, has partnered major industry players – VDMA, the German Engineering Federation; ZVEI, the German Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers Association; and SPECTARIS, the German High-Tech Industry Association – with smaller enterprises, along with Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and the Max Planck Institute, to dedicate as much as €30 billion for photonics research over the next several years.

International Year of Light

January 2015 saw the start of the International Year of Light (IYL2015), a global initiative to raise awareness of photonics and optics and their contributions to sustainable development and to technological solutions in the fields of energy, education, agriculture, communications and health. Several German research institutions and organizations are involved in this initiative.

Courtesy of Jan-Peter Kasper/University of Jena.

For example, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light is a member of the German IYL2015 steering committee. The institute has already scheduled numerous events alongside Friedrich Alexander Universität Erlangen Nürnberg’s Institute of Optics, Information and Photonics. A public outreach program, die.Lichtbühne, is bringing information to the masses all year long with presentations and experiments in various cities.

Hugenottenplatz in Erlangen is scheduled to feature Max Planck doctoral student Siegfried Weisenburger, presenting a lecture titled, “Plasmonics: Light Magic in the Nanoworld.”

Fraunhofer IWS Dresden has introduced a large-scale project featuring more than 40 partners, with the goal of shaping the future of additive manufacturing. Additive techniques promise big improvements to production engineering, overcoming some limitations of conventional fabrication technologies, according to the institute.

The University of Jena has organized a Day of Light, to be held June 3.
The University of Jena has organized a Day of Light, to be held June 3. Courtesy of University of Jena.

The International Symposium on Additive Manufacturing – held Feb. 25-26 at Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research – brought together industry experts and others to discuss additive manufacturing applications and products, process development, closed and open innovation, and more.

Jena, Germany – known as the City of Light – has planned IYL2015 programs that will target industry players and young researchers. A University of Jena-organized Day of Light, featuring novel experiments and presentations, will be held on June 3.

Meet the author

Justine Murphy is editor of EuroPhotonics; email:

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