Optics and photonics threatened by EU chemical regulations

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On the eve of the Optatec trade fair, Jessica Rowbury speaks to Dr Peter Hartmann of Schott Advanced Optics about the unintended implications of REACH and RoHS on the optics industry – EU regulations limiting the use of heavy metals vital for optics manufacture

During SPIE Photonics Europe in April, executive briefings took place to discuss the issue of two European Union regulations – REACH and RoHS – that are restricting the use of certain raw materials for optical systems inside of the EU.

The regulations are threatening development of products used in the scientific, industrial and commercial industries, and could undo part of the good work initiated by the EU Horizon 2020 programme, according Dr Peter Hartmann, director for market and customer relations at Schott Advanced Optics.

The problem is that many of the chemicals and substances restricted under REACH and RoHS are essential raw materials for the production of all sorts of photonics-enabled devices. Instruments like fluorescence microscopes, telescopes, infrared cameras, optical lenses, laser safety goggles, and semiconductor crystals rely on heavy metals like lead and cadmium restricted under the regulations.

One encouraging outcome of the briefings in Brussels was that, for the first time, Hartmann feels that the potential impact the regulations could have is slowly being realised by EU officials, which is vital for formally addressing the issue.

Hartmann, who gave a presentation on the regulations at Photonics Europe, is applying for general exemption to the regulations for optics, which means that all optical materials containing lead, cadmium or other harmful substances would be exempt, regardless of the application. Hartmann and his colleagues expect to submit this by the end of the year, with the aim that the exemption will be granted in 2016. ‘It is important that it is a general exemption, because there are so many applications that if you want to make a choice between different applications it would be a never-ending story,’ he said.

REACH regulates on the registration, evaluation, authorisation, and restriction of chemicals, in order to avoid the public coming in contact with hazardous substances. RoHS restricts or prohibits the use of mercury, lead, cadmium, and other hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, and was introduced to reduce the amount of harmful chemicals in electronic waste so that electronics could be recycled more efficiently.

But, according to Hartmann, only minute amounts of these substances are used in optical products, and they only make up a small percentage of electrical waste. ‘The electrical and electronic waste stream that we have per year in Europe is more than 10 million tonnes − the total amount of lead glass we have worldwide is 500 tonnes, and the total amount of glass containing cadmium worldwide is only about 0.3 tonnes,’ he remarked. He also added that once these raw materials are firmly bound in glass, it is not possible for them to be released again and they no longer pose a hazard.

It is not solely optics and photonics companies that will suffer, but technology as a whole, Hartmann stated: ‘One thing that is not known in general is this extreme leverage factor that optical materials have on the rest of optics and technology in general. Everything has optics inside; almost everything will be affected.’

The EU Horizon 2020 programme, which will hopefully boost the optics and photonics industry through the availability of €700 million of funding over the next seven years, could also be hindered by these regulations, Hartmann said.

He gave an example of a presentation he saw at Photonics Europe about large-scale adoption of integrated photonics for IT, which could enable huge increases in performance of both speed and bandwidth in computing. However, the researchers plan to use gallium arsenide lasers, which under the regulations could not be marketed due to the raw material arsenide.

In addition, there is an issue of not enough awareness. Not all scientists know about the regulations until they have already started work on a project, according to Hartmann. ‘People will start researching and then will find out that they cannot market it. It is a huge waste of money and time for researchers,’ he commented. And, if such projects have received EU funding under Horizon 2020, then the EU is also wasting resources. ‘If the EU is supporting one of these projects with their money, then they are effectively throwing their own money out of the window,’ he added. ‘I think the main target is to make these people aware − because I am quite sure they do not know about it.’

Quantum dots are another important area of research that could suffer as a result of the regulations. ‘Unfortunately most of these dots are made of cadmium selenide,’ said Hartmann. If there is no likelihood of developing a product at the end, it may stop European researchers from embarking on such projects altogether, such as those for quantum computing. ‘If you stop the research from the very beginning with these substances, you may miss a lot of beneficial properties,’ he said.

During the Photonics Europe briefings, several officials from the EU attended the meetings. ‘I have, for the first time, got the impression that the message is slowly reaching the EU,’ Hartmann said.

Hartmann and his colleagues are now preparing their application for the general exemption. Then, the next stage would be to apply for optics to be removed from the scope of the regulations when they are next revised, most probably in 2018-2020. ‘I am quite confident we can achieve this,’ he said.

But, although Hartmann feels optimistic, he expressed that he would like to see more individuals or companies affected by the regulations to bring it to the industry’s attention. ‘I know it is a problem that nobody wants to be related in public with arsenide or cadmium or lead for example,’ he stated, adding that, possibly in specific publications, companies should admit using these substances and support those who are fighting for their use.