World-class research in the UK

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The UK is conducting world-leading research into optics and photonics, much of which has strong potential for commercial exploitation, according to a report published last month by the Institute of Physics (IoP) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Despite their potential for commercialisation, many of the research interests listed in the report Optics and Photonics: Physics enhancing our lives are some way from practical application. The report notes, however, that technologies such as photonic crystal fibres would have fallen into the blue-sky category until recently. These nano-structured optical fibres, which were largely pioneered by UK research groups, are now used as the basis for supercontinuum lasers - a new generation of broad-spectrum light source, which is being commercialised for applications including laser microscopy and optical coherence tomography (OCT), as well as being used in some aeronautical systems by UK defence manufacturer BAE Systems.

The commercialisation of the supercontinuum laser is representative of many of the research interests listed in the report: When it comes to applying the UK's basic research, the biomedical sciences and the defence industry continue to be the national favourites, especially within the optics and photonics sector. Adaptive optical techniques, for example, the subject of research at Imperial College, London, are leading to some potentially lucrative applications, in ophthalmology, high-resolution laser microscopy, and in security at border control points. A company called AOptix Technologies has been spun out of Imperial College in order to commercialise the border security application, with the aim of producing apparatus that will be able to image a subject's iris reliably from a distance of up to two metres, for use in conjunction with biometric passports and ID cards.

According to the report, quantum cascade lasers, or QCLs, are emerging as an accessible way to produce laser radiation at a range of wavelengths that may have previously been difficult or impossible to achieve. QCLs are semiconductor-based lasers, so they can be manufactured relatively cheaply using the materials and techniques common to the electronics industry. In an application outside of defence or biomedicine, Professor Charlie Ironside's group at Glasgow University's Department of Electronics and Electrical Engineering has developed QCLs for use in the petrochemical industry.

The main goal of the group's research is to replace an unusual laser used by Shell as part of its LightTouch prospecting instrument. The LightTouch is a vehicle-mounted system designed to detect ground emissions of ethane gas by looking for characteristic absorption at a wavelength of 3.34µm, in the mid-IR portion of the spectrum. This absorption wavelength happens to correspond to the first of two atmospheric windows - transparent portions of the spectrum where water vapour and CO2 do not absorb. By exploiting one of these windows, the LightTouch system can detect concentrations of ethane down to 0.7 parts per trillion. Currently, the instrument uses a lead-salt laser, but this is bulky and it must be cooled to 77K or below for stable operation. Because prospecting for oil often takes place in wilderness areas, or even deserts, maintaining these temperatures is challenging and costly.

Using wafers produced by a partner team at Sheffield University, the Glasgow group has produced a QCL capable of producing a stable 50mW emission at room temperature. It can even continue to produce a useful beam at temperatures up to 125°C. Field tests will take place over the next two years, starting in Oman, moving to Algeria, and then to Western Australia. Ironside told Electro Optics that the team is continuing to improve its power output and temperature performance. The group is working closely with Cascade Technologies, a spin-out of similar research at Strathclyde University, in order to commercialise the technology. The work is funded by the Technology Strategy Board (originally as part of the Department of Trade and Industry). Shell's contribution will be the field trial, as this is an expensive part of development.

While this particular project is fortunate enough to have multiple industrial partners, Professor Ironside believes that the way in which funding is allocated in the UK may adversely affect the  practical application of much of the country’s photonics research. Every five years, the Government undertakes a Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to check the quality of the research undertaken in UK universities. The most recent took place in 2008.

'The RAE does drive the research within the universities,' says Ironside, 'and economic impact was not held as an important factor in this particular assessment [2008]. I think that university researchers just don't tend to have economic impact in the forefront of their minds; it's just not something that was valued by the research assessment exercise. A lot of people like to have an economic impact, but in my view there wasn't enough emphasis placed on it.'

The next RAE will, however, take place sometime around 2013, and Ironside believes that economic impact will be given more emphasis: 'I think that these points have been recognised, and in the next iteration of the research assessment exercise, economic impact will be explicitly considered,' he said. With four or more years to go before the next assessment is due, UK universities have plenty of time to ensure that their research interests are able to fulfil the world-leading potential for commercial success described in the IoP and EPSRC report.