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Irish optics shines

01 Apr 2005

Ireland is fast becoming a major force in the world of optics, thanks to an influx of investment, scientific excellence and entrepreneurial spirit. Oliver Graydon reports.

Following a golden age of optical research during the 19th century, there are now signs that Ireland is experiencing a renaissance in photonics, with a plethora of start-ups appearing on the scene and the emergence of world-class research groups. The success seems to be down to a combination of forward-thinking government policies, an injection of financial investment and the Celtic appetite for entrepreneurship.

Undoubtedly the best way to get a picture of Ireland's history and current position in the world of optics is by attending this month's SPIE OPTO Ireland event in Dublin. Following in the footsteps of the first successful show in Galway in 2002, this year's three-day conference and exhibition runs on 4-6 April. It is expected to feature around 60 exhibitors, 400 technical papers and possibly as many as 1000 visitors.

In addition to its technical sessions on a wide range of topics including imaging, sensors, optoelectronics, fabrication and optical networks, a highlight of the event is the unique "Optics Retrospective" morning that celebrates Ireland's rich history in optics.

Astronomical excellence

Talks include the country's role as a major force in astronomy in the 19th century, Irish contributions to the development of spectroscopy, and the history of optics at Trinity College, Dublin, and Queen's University, Belfast. It is a little-known fact that between about 1840 and 1910, Ireland was home to the largest and, arguably, best piece of astronomical equipment in the world - a 72 inch metal-reflector telescope constructed at Birr Castle by William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse. Using this magnificent telescope, Lord Rosse was able to scrutinize the night sky and make an in-depth study of nebulae, naming the Crab Nebula in the process.

And it wasn't just astronomy which was being pioneered in the Emerald Isle in the 1800s. The island was also home to some of the most prestigious scientists of the time in other areas of optics. Two examples include George Stokes (the mathematical physicist famous for the Stokes frequency shift) and John Tyndall, who constructed the first ratio spectrophometer for measuring the presence of invisible gases and who postulated the scattering of light by dust and large molecules.

Tyndall's name is now honoured in the title of one of Ireland's leading research centres: the Tyndall Institute in Cork. This newly formed facility consists of the National Microelectronics Research Centre (NMRC) and the photonics groups at University College, Cork, and the Cork Institute of Technology. A centre of excellence in the manufacture of semiconductor devices and optical communications, the Tyndall Institute has given birth to four start-ups: SensL Technologies; Firecomms; Nanocomms; and Optical Metrology Innovations (see box). In many cases, the creation of these firms has been supported by financing from the government agency Enterprise Ireland and local venture-capital firms.

Last year, Enterprise Ireland invested €80 m in the creation of 65 new start-up firms, including several (Ntera and SensL) in the field of photonics. Other successful start-ups that have been founded in recent years include Eblana Photonics, Nualight, Plasma Ireland, Intune Technologies and Tsunami Photonics (now PXIT).

The Tyndall Institute has also been successful in attracting high-calibre scientists to put down roots in Ireland. In 2003, a team of internationally renowned researchers (David Cotter and his co-workers) from the former BT/Corning research laboratories in Ipswich, UK, were enticed to Cork to found a new photonics research group.

The creation of the new group was financed with the help of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), a funding agency that claims to have initiated the largest investment in scientific research ever undertaken in Ireland. To date, SFI has invested €25 m into photonics in Ireland. Together with Bell Labs, a further €26 m has been spent in the Centre for Telecommunication Value Chain Driven Research, which is headquartered at Trinity College, Dublin. This dual approach to investment in the research base and commercial world by SFI and Enterprise Ireland has been a key part of stimulating Ireland's recent renaissance.

Aside from the activity in Cork and Dublin, Galway is also an important base for optics research and the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway, is home to the National Centre for Laser Applications (NCLA) and an Applied Optics Group, which is performing world-class research into adaptive optics.

NUI Galway is unique in having had two of its scientists recently elected to the boards of prestigious international optical societies. Tom Glynn (founder and director of the NCLA) will serve on the SPIE board and Chris Dainty (head of Applied Optics Group) has been elected as vice-president of the Optical Society of America. This news is significant because it is the first time that Ireland-based scientists have taken these prominent positions. It is also the first occasion that, outside of the US, a single institution - the NUI - has been represented in both societies.

Further good news for the Irish research sector came recently with the news that Bell Labs, the Nobel-prize-winning research-and-development arm of telecoms equipment vendor Lucent Technologies, is establishing a facility in Dublin. According to the centre's director, Lou Manzione, a major reason for setting up in Ireland was the government's progressive policy towards supporting investment. But just as important was to the need establish close links with the country's research groups. With news like this, there is no doubt that the Irish optics scene is going from strength to strength.

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