Looking back at a career in photonics

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David Gibson, managing director of Photon Lines, looks back at his more than 40 years working with light-based technology







Ever since my first job straight after graduating, some 42 years ago, I have been a “photonician”. This term is an adaptation of a word coined, I believe, by an ex-employer of mine, Herve Arditty, the founder and CEO of Photonetics, a manufacturer and distributor based in France until around 2000. The company’s tagline perfectly summed up the attitude of its employees, (the “Photoneticians”) at the time: “A Passion for Photons”. This was where I met my current business partner, Eric Drean, who span out of the business to form Photon Lines in 2001, when the “distribution” products under his charge were not part of a 1.05 billion dollar deal by Herve to sell the tunable laser manufacturing side of the business to communications test equipment company GN Nettest.

Possibly inspired by the success of our former employer, our French parent company Photon Lines SAS itself has its own product manufacturing side, but this time aimed at imaging applications, rather than advanced fibre optic communications, which was the main building block of the emerging internet generation of the late 1990s.

In my early days in research I was excited to be given the opportunity to run a project which depended on Fourier Transform Holography to allow the real time recognition of targets within complex backgrounds. The project employed a multi-disciplinary team which included physicists, mathematicians and materials scientists, and even in those early days, there was a great deal of interest in making machines smarter. Whilst the work was exciting, at least initially, I did have a desire to get out of the darkrooms and find out more about what else was happening in the world of “lasers and electro-optics” as photonics was then called.

This came to fruition in 1985, when my new employer, a leading laser distributor, opened my eyes to other applications for lasers and acousto-optics, including the phototypesetting and computer to plate industries. The end use for these machines was in newspaper and magazine publishing, which, in those pre-internet days, was undergoing its own “revolution”, and used large “fax machines” to allow publications to be available around the world, in near real time. Not so exciting now, perhaps, but it impressed me at the time!

Since then, the HeNe and Argon ion lasers with external modulators that I sold at the time have been replaced in those applications by directly modulated laser diodes with fairly complex (and proprietary) optics, to convert what is inherently a very elliptical, astigmatic (some might say “ugly”) beam to achieve m-squared values approaching 1.00, giving a near perfect focus. Whilst the paper print industry is now a minnow compared to the newer digital newspaper sector, the lasers and light engines from our partner Omicron Laserage have evolved from this and similar applications, including the outmoded DVD mastering space. Those same properties are now essential for a new generation of life sciences instrumentation, particularly fluorescent light microscopy systems. In a constant effort to expand our product range with complementary technologies, our long association with loyal partners such as Omicron and sCMOS camera manufacturer PCO, has enabled us to join forces with the Nobel Prize winning team who invented the STED super resolution microscopy technique, Abberior Instruments.

Another device that I was familiar with in my first foray into photonics was the thermal imaging camera, which was one possible input to the automatic pattern recognition system we were aiming to develop. Since those early days thermal imaging technology has also developed a great deal, with higher resolution imaging and accurate temperature measurements now being achievable, enabling our partner Telops to provide solutions for applications as diverse as process monitoring in manufacturing, gas detection and non-destructive testing. Photon Lines Ltd also offers the company’s “Hyper-Cam Airborne Mini” system, which, along with products from another partner, Resonon, is one of a wide range of hyperspectral imaging cameras with sensors that operate from the ultraviolet region to 11.8 microns in the infrared.

Photon Lines Ltd was incorporated in 2003 to expand the company’s geographical reach, to address the UK and Ireland markets. Since then we have grown and continually added partners to our line-up, which now includes not only a wide range of lasers and scientific cameras , but also components such as acousto-optic devices and microspectrometers, and radiation imaging devices from our Czech partner, Advacam. We even have a line of cosmetics claims substantiation instruments which are based on the properties of hair and skin when illuminated with polarised light.

Photonics has grown exponentially since those early days, and its influence and importance continues to this day. We are proud to be involved once again in communications and computing, this time by offering single frequency lasers and acousto-optic frequency shifters to the Quantum Technology community.

During the evolution of Photon Lines the skill set has changed and expanded as the fields of activity have continued to grow. In addition to employing highly qualified physicists, our life sciences specialist has post doctorate experience in microbiology, helping him to understand any problems that our microscopist customers may be presented with in their research. Our contribution to life sciences also manifests itself in the “point-of-care” industry, as our partner, Insion’s microspectrometer range are being used for the detection of serious health conditions, ultimately saving lives. Their end customers’ instruments can even  be found in high street pharmacies to detect Covid infections in a speedy, efficient fashion.

I can honestly say that I still have a “Passion for Photons” and try to share that enthusiasm with the rest of our wider team across the UK, France and Spain. It is our founder, Eric Drean’s stated desire to “ensure that we share knowledge, expertise and above all the pleasure of contributing to innovation in the field of photonics”. I couldn’t have put it better myself!


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David Gibson