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Towards smart photonics in 2020

Tuesday 19 November 2013, by Pascal Kockaert

Summary of the project

The European Commission has acknowledged the importance of Photonics by identifying it as one of five Key Enabling Technologies (KETs) for Europe, next to Nanotechnology, Micro- and Nanoelectronics, Advanced materials and Biotechnology. Photonics is an enabling technology for a wide diversity of markets: communications and information technology, energy, health care, lighting and displays, smart sensing and metrology, manufacturing tools. The present project photonics@be: towards smart photonics in 2020 embodies the Belgian network that will contribute to Europe’s ambitious goals in the field of photonics. This network is the prolongation of the highly successful project photonics@be: micro-, nano- and quantum-photonics . It brings together all the leading groups in photonics in Belgium, spanning a large pool of expertise ranging from development of novel materials and cutting edge fabrication technologies, to advanced component design and measurement, all the way to complete systems. This technological expertise is supported by a strong background in foundational science ranging from quantum information theory, quantum optics, and nonlinear dynamical physics systems, to neural networks and machine learning. For the current proposal, we aim to focus this diverse expertise in the direction of what is called “smart photonics”.

What a smart photonic system does is implementing a relatively unique or sophisticated function with limited consumption of energy and material resources. Smart photonics will be achieved for instance by combining state-of-the-art materials as to provide unprecedented functionalities, by integrating these materials at the chip level to reduce footprint and energy consumption, by putting together these new components to produce light sources or measurement devices with unprecedented performance, and by combining all these resources into new systems with original architectures. Smart photonics will provide the increased performance at the component, device and system level required to respond to the challenges of the coming decade.

The partners in this network have developed state-of-the-art fabrication technologies, ranging from a Silicon on Insulator (SOI) fabrication platform (in collaboration with imec), a foundry-like platform for InP integrated devices, an advanced polymer prototyping line, a Fiber Bragg Grating writing platform, a fiber drawing tower, a quantum dot synthesis laboratory. The future development of these technology platforms is not by itself part of the present project as past experience has shown that these activities are not easily amenable to collaborative research. However these fabrication platforms will be made accessible to all members of the project. As such they constitute the backbone on which the collaborative work packages are built.

The research project is structured in five work packages (WP).

In WP1 “hybrid materials for smart photonic devices”, we develop the novel materials and combinations of materials that play an important role in realising our vision of smart photonics. This mainly involves the functionalization of the established technology platforms within the consortium – Integrated photonics (SOI and Si3N4), optical fibres and polymer-based photonic components – with quantum dots or inorganic thin films to achieve gain, nonlinearity or photodetection, but also with blue phase liquid crystals for high-speed switching, amorphous silicon for highly-efficient nonlinear functions, novel dyes for solar integrators, graphene for ultra-compact photonic devices and polymer liquid crystals or liquid crystals in combination with plasmonic nano antenna arrays with quantum dot emitters for beam steering.

WP2 focuses on “smart light sources”, i.e. light sources with novel additional functionalities. Examples are extending the wavelength range of quantum dot emitters to the infra-red, improving the efficiency of organic LEDs, developing many new classes of fibre sources (random lasers, supercontinuum sources, …) whose development is based on our strong expertise in nonlinear dynamics. Also the combination of liquid crystals with VCSELS and other lasers will be explored.

The main topic of WP3 is “downscaling photonics”, an important enabler to achieve higher levels of integration, performance and sustainability. Here we investigate such topics as downscaling light emitters and detectors so that thousands of them fit on a single chip, extending the silicon photonics platform to both the mid-IR as well as the visible, quantum optics where light is manipulated at the single photon scale, as well as lab-on-a-chip technology based on optofluidics. The use of slow light to decrease device footprint is also addressed.

WP4 is all about “smart light processing”. Quantum dot based modulators and switches based on novel symmetry breaking mechanisms are studied here, as well as ferro-electric, amorphous silicon and liquid-crystal based switches. Other relevant topics are laser dynamics, tunability and beam steering.

Finally, WP5 deals with “novel computing paradigms”. Here, we continue working on the unique paradigm we proposed in the previous IAP, namely photonic reservoir computing. By using a network of nonlinear photonic devices, we aim to solve pattern recognition problems at much lower power consumption and/or much higher speed compared to traditional architectures. The research in this WP lies at the transdisciplinary frontier between photonic systems architecture, nonlinear dynamical systems, and artificial intelligence.

These five WP’s are closely interconnected: for instance, the hybrid materials of WP1 will be used in WPs 2, 3 and 4; the downscaling carried out in WP3 will be intimately connected to the progress in WP2 and WP4; the network of photonic devices used in WP5 can be provided by WP2 and WP4.

Following its positive evaluation in the previous IAP project, the management of the project is largely maintained. The coordinator remains Philippe Emplit (ULB), who is supported by two deputy coordinators, Peter Bienstman (UGent) and Serge Massar (ULB).

In the project we strongly emphasize both training of young scientists and networking/collaboration between partners. All partners in this project count a number of new professors and scientists with permanent positions. The network photonics@be provides the perfect opportunity for these young scientists to develop their skills in a flexible and stimulating environment. Networking will be stimulated by our annual project workshop and a bi-annual newsletter. Both networking and training is provided by our very successful annual doctoral school.

We will also carry over from the previous project the very original concept of “a catalyst team” which consists of 2 or 3 young professors who visit all the groups so as to know in depth the research they carry out, and thereby provide the nucleus around which novel networking and collaboration opportunities can emerge.

Self-assessment will be provided by a mid-term internal evaluation by a well-established international follow-up committee. Finally, we aim at reaching out beyond our network, both to other scientists in our field and to the general public and secondary school students, through the organization of conferences and workshops.