Cork: County at the vanguard of photonics training and education
Photonics is a vital cog in further developing the chipmaking industry, ensuring companies and manufacturers have a steady stream of new technology coming down the tracks
In labs and clean rooms at the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork, researchers are plotting out the future of photonics training and education.
Tyndall is a member of Pixapp, a European consortium for research into photonics, which is the science of light particles called photons.
It is joined by researchers, universities and organisations dotted around Europe, working with industry to deploy photon technology in various use cases. It has received funding from Science Foundation Ireland and the European Commission.
Microchips have long been developed using electrons, but photonic integrated circuits, which use light instead, present vast opportunities.
Photonics can help improve the performance of chips – they are smaller, longer lasting and use less energy – in medical devices, cars and fibre optic cables.
Peter O’Brien is the director of Pixapp and head of the photonics packaging and systems integration group at Tyndall.
Photonics was, O’Brien said, a relatively new field – and taking raw research and refining it for industrial use takes time.
Photonics has the potential to revolutionise different industries, but not if the technology is only the preserve of photonics specialists, he said. This is why training is vital.
Tyndall is looking to export its photonics training programmes to a wider European base.
The organisation and several other partners have secured European Commission funding to develop a photonics training network, tentatively dubbed the European Photonics Academy, that will collaborate with up to 50 different centres and organisations in Europe.
This will allow researchers and industry professionals to come into centres in Cork or other locations for hands-on workshops and sessions on photonics to understand the technology and hone ideas into potential products.
“We’re setting up 50 training centres across Europe under the umbrella of the European Photonics Academy and it's all being led out of Cork by my group,” O’Brien said.
He explained that investing in training and education was crucial because there is a shortage of photonics knowledge among engineers.
“There’s a big shortage. They’re highly desirable for industry. In a PhD, you might have a certain skill, but we need to give them very practical skills,” he said.
A key facet of the photonics research in Cork is developing standards for all researchers and academics that are widely agreed on and accepted, as seen in other research fields.
O’Brien said that photonics is at risk of becoming a patchwork of different standards that will inhibit the technology’s progress.
“One of the big challenges in photonics, to design a photonic system, is you have to be an expert in photonics,” he said.
“We're trying to move things towards standards where you don't have to be the world's best photonics physicist to design a product. You should be an engineer.”
Pixapp’s Europe-wide training and education programme will be an important part of ensuring everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. Pixapp and UCC are also engaged with US universities like Columbia University and MIT in devising standards.
The ultimate aim is to create a “bridge” between researchers that might have an idea and companies that have a need for new technology.
Pixapp has worked with companies like Medtronic to develop an optical system that uses a laser to scan above the skin to monitor for cardiovascular conditions.
Outside of labs, the world has been grappling with a chip shortage in recent months that has hampered manufacturing output.
This shortage has seen giants like Intel ramp up their manufacturing capacity by building sprawling new facilities.
Research like photonics is a vital cog in further developing the chipmaking industry, O’Brien said, ensuring companies and manufacturers have a steady stream of new technology coming down the tracks that will improve the performance of everything from smartphones to cars.
Quantum computing is the next major field of advanced technology where photonics will play a role, he added.
Pixapp’s work with industry and various European academic groups means that researchers that come to Cork will be at the coalface of photonics in Europe.
“When we bring people in, they get trained on the latest machines from some of the best companies around the world.”