Back from the future: 2030 photonics

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Europe needs to prioritise photonics to avoid market share losses as seen in the semiconductor industry, states Carlos Lee, EPIC’s director general

 

 

 

 

  

 

Brussels Times 10 January 2030

The European Commissioner for European Technological and Digital Sovereignty announces the first EU Photonics Chips Act

Earlier today, the 10th of January 2030, at the Berlaymont, Brussels, the European Commissioner for European Technological and Digital Sovereignty, finally announced an EU Photonics Chips Act to build on Europe’s strengths and address outstanding supply weaknesses, develop a thriving photonics ecosystem and resilient supply chain, while setting measures to prepare, anticipate and respond to future supply chain disruptions.

This followed the European Commission president in a State of the Union speech on the 12 December 2029, stating that Europe will retake leadership in quantum computing and that it will ensure access to the necessary photonics technologies that will underpin Europe’s digital ambitions and security in the fourth decade of the 21st century.

Seasoned industry and political observers quickly pointed out the many similarities between the timing and geopolitical landscape of this new Photonics Chip Act and the previous Semiconductor Chip Act of almost a decade previously (2022). Indeed, in the decade prior to that Semiconductor chip act, the European Union had lost 50 per cent of its manufacturing market share, falling to below 10 per cent, due to underfunding, a complex state-aid-rules landscape and other issues. In fact, Europe had at that time only limited chip-manufacturing capabilities, mainly in mature production nodes (at 22nm and above), and none, at all, in leading-edge chips (at 7nm and below).

The same observers stated that similar decisions made at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, in 2021 and 2022, had severely undermined the competitiveness and resilience of the European photonics industry and broader photonics ecosystem. In particular, the draconian cut of 50 per cent of the budget of the public-private photonics partnership from its previous funding (2014-2020), the elimination of a separate photonics unit within the European Commission, and finally, the compelling absence (at that time) of any major European Photonics act. This occurred despite many influential European institutions such as the European Investment Bank (EIB), three Nobel Prize winners, along with several Member States, emphasising the importance of photonics.

Sadly, as a result, by the end of 2029, the European share of photonics had fallen from a high of 16 per cent in 2022, to below eight per cent (a similar market loss trajectory to that of the European microelectronics manufacturing sector suffered a decade prior). Critical supplies of photonics technologies for quantum computing, for secure communications and for space systems, had been disrupted since April 2028 because of geopolitical pressures. In addition, the photonics industry sector, already fragile due to its almost 98 per cent SME composition, had been decimated by ‘large volume photonics manufacturing operations’ in the new Asia and Americas. 

 

Dear European photonics community, I hope that you appreciate my fictional story from the Brussels Times of 10 January 2030, a decade down the road.

Before I tell you why I wrote that fictional 2030 news article, allow me to clarify the context: Firstly, does EPIC support the European Chips Act communication announced earlier this year? Yes, it does, absolutely. Does EPIC believe that more funds should be channelled into microelectronics – again, yes it does absolutely.

Secondly, before those deep cuts to the Photonics public private partnership of 2021, did the European Investment Bank (EIB) actually highlight the importance of photonics? Yes it did, to quote ‘The EIB has recognised photonics as one of the two key digital deep technologies that will provide the secure, sovereign and resilient digital infrastructure necessary for our digital sovereignty.’

Equally, did Nobel Prize winners actually write to the European Commission in 2021 to highlight the importance of maintaining funding for photonics? Yes they did! In fact twice – European Nobel Prize laureates in photonics, Gérard Mourou, Stefan Hell and Theodor Hänsch, wrote to European Commissioners, on two occasions, to emphasise that ‘photonics is simply essential for powering the future European digital economy’ and that photonics must be strongly supported in the future Horizon Europe and Digital Europe European Commission programmes 2021-2027. During this time, 500 CEOs of European photonics companies also co-signed an EPIC position letter to the European Commission to urge a prioritisation of photonics. Were these actions heard? That is for you to judge. 

Might the scenario painted in the fictional press release of 2030 actually happen? Yes, absolutely it could – given the current attention and prioritisation of photonics within our European Union at the highest levels.

Why am I writing this ‘Reflection on Photonics in Europe’ now? Because this is a time of deep reflection in Europe, a time of recognising that many decisions and actions should have been taken earlier, that Europe needs to stand on its own feet, and the importance of deep technologies for our sovereign European security.

In my own professional sphere of responsibility, I am now reflecting deeply on how to best prepare for the tsunami of the challenges that our European photonics industry members – and the broader photonics R&D community – will have to face in the coming years. One thing is sure – we should all act now.  We should learn from the lessons of the past in the semiconductor sector; we should learn from the current geopolitical challenges and how they are radically impacting supply chains and supply chain security; we should learn from our international competitors who are prioritising photonics now!

I wish you all well, a bright photonics-enabled future, and look forward to both your feedback and suggestions on how best to position our European photonics industry in the future. EPIC, the leading photonics industry association, is here to listen to you

Building a new semiconductor fab can cost more than €10bn. Credit: Imec

24 May 2022