Why photonics research is vital

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Dr Stefan Kaierle, chairman of the European Laser Institute, says ongoing investment in R&D is essential for the photonics community

Most people are happy with the improvements that modern life offers us every day. Driving a car becomes ever easier and safer thanks to improved supporting systems. GPS systems are getting more and more ‘intelligent’ in order to help us avoid traffic jams. Personal computers are becoming more and more versatile and convenient due to improved processor performance. This list could be endless and could give us the impression that the current state-of-the-art is brilliant – and that we don’t need any further improvements. Well, indeed we could be happy with what has been achieved in research and development until now, but realistically, there is always a way to improve.

Global warming due to the massive consumption of fossil energies is an important issue that threatens all of us. So, what can we do? We need cars that consume less energy, or perhaps are even driven by alternative energy concepts. We also need electrical devices that waste less energy. Additionally, we need generation of energy that does not pollute the environment. It is easy to state this, but difficult to realise. But it’s not impossible, and here’s just one example: it is anticipated that the grid parity for solar cells on private buildings will be reached within the next four years, i.e. the production of ‘private’ energy on top of a building will be cheaper than using electricity from the traditional power suppliers (source: Financial Times Germany, 21 September 2009). This will certainly be a big step in the right direction. But how can such improvements be achieved?

The key factor to such success stories is the continued efforts in research and development. Photonics technologies doubtlessly play a vital role in the topics mentioned above. If one looks at the history of the laser as one of the main photonic light sources, approaches have changed significantly over time. When the first laser was realised in 1960, everyone looked for an appropriate application. Today, we have applications ‘looking’ for lasers and photon sources to be developed according to the corresponding needs. But of course, applications need to be developed further as well.

However, the financial burdens cannot be borne by innovative companies and research organisations on their own. The European Commission (EC) is aware of this and therefore strongly supports the societal, economic and relevant scientific topics with the FP7 funding programme (Seventh Framework Programme for research and technological development), which is the world’s largest programme for R&D funding. At the end of July, the EC launched the largest call for submission of proposals ever – addressing almost all areas of research covered in the programme. This also includes a new instrument, called ‘Public-Private Partnership – PPP’. This is supporting the weakened economy in Europe by setting up R&D projects as quickly and efficiently as possible within the European recovery package, specifically addressing ‘factories of the future’, ‘energy efficient buildings’ and ‘green cars’.

The EC has to keep up with current challenges, and it achieves this by relying on the opinion of a large number of experts. These experts are organised in so-called ‘European Technology Platforms’ – initiated by the EC about five years ago. Today more than 35 such platforms exist. Also, photonics itself has its own platform: Photonics21, which was founded in 2005 and now has more than 1,400 members of industrial enterprises and other stakeholders in the field of photonics Europe-wide. One basic task of each European Technology Platform is to develop a so-called ‘Strategic Research Agenda’, which serves as major input to the EC when considering the respective funding programmes.

The Photonics21 platform is currently revising its first agenda, which was published in 2006. The new version is planned to be handed over to the EC early in 2010. Numerous experts are involved in editing the agenda, including active contributions by members the European Laser Institute. Some of the fruits of these labours are already visible through the calls published so far in FP7, which included several laser and photonics-related topics.

The implementation of these calls has already been a good starting point for photonics technologies in FP7 – but more is needed in the future. Referring again to the solar cell example, it is evident that improvement of efficiencies at reduced manufacturing cost is crucial – and it is only possible to achieve this through well-funded R&D.

During the present economic crisis the EC and several national governments recognise that enhanced forces in R&D activities are the key to economic success of a country or region. Photonics in Europe enjoys a leading position – and it needs appropriate support in order to stay there. Photonics research is vital for Europe!