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Firecomms burns bright

01 Apr 2005

A new type of ultrafast red LED could soon be making an appearance in optical networks in the car and home, if a young Irish firm's technology proves popular. Oliver Graydon spoke to Firecomms chief executive officer Declan O'Mahoney about the start-up's plans.

OG: Tell me about Firecomms and its technology. DO: Firecomms is a spin-off from the largest research facility in Ireland - the NMRC, which is now part of the Tyndall Institute in Cork. The founders of Firecomms were research scientists at the NMRC, focusing on a neglected area in fibre optics. While all the major laser manufacturers were centering on the infrared space to develop better 850 and 1310 nm sources for datacoms, the NMRC team was looking at visible sources, in particular red [650 nm] VCSELs [vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers] and RCLEDs [red resonant-cavity light-emitting diodes].

They developed the technology to make these devices and, in late 2001, founded a venture-financed spin-out. Since then, the company has been maturing that technology. As it turns out, one of the really exciting areas of application for these devices is that of datacoms using plastic optical fibre [POF]. This is because it has a sweet spot [low-loss transmission window] in the red.

Today, conventional red LEDs are used, but they max out at data speeds of about 50 Mbit/s, whereas our RCLEDs are intrinsically faster and will run up to 400 Mbit/s. As they have a smaller emission aperture, the coupling efficiency into optical fibre is also much higher and they perform very well at high temperatures.

What are the main applications that you are targeting?

The use of LEDs and POF is very big business for automobiles and, to date, about 20 million nodes [LED transceivers] based on the MOST protocol [a design of fibre-optic harness for cars developed by a consortium led by DaimlerChrysler] have been deployed.

Consumer demand for more electronic devices in cars, such as anti-collision cameras, DVD players and navigation systems, means that copper has become an inadequate way of moving data around. Remember, the car is one of the noisiest EMI environments in the world - thousands of explosions take place every second in the engine. The weight of the car harness also goes down by a factor of 10 with the POF-MOST technology, so there are a lot of advantages in deploying it.

What Firecomms is doing is providing next-generation technology in packages that are compatible with today's standards. Our RCLED-MOST transceivers will be available in the third quarter of this year and provide significant increases of at least 5 dB in the optical link budget [of the harness]. This is a critical point for the car guys as it relaxes their constraints about the number of connectors they can use and the length of harness. The current budget for MOST with LEDs is about -23 dB, but with our RCLED transceivers we expect to make it -28 to -30 dB. Renault has also just used our devices to demonstrate an in-car entertainment network based on 1394 [a high-speed data protocol, also known as FireWire, that is found in consumer electronics and PCs].

What about applications outside of cars? The beauty of the Firecomms business is that the same technology is directly transferable to larger-volume markets such as home-networking and consumer applications, and we are very active in these areas. Take the latest LCD flat-screen TVs, which look great and can be hung on the wall. They need a 40-50 Mbit/s data-stream to form an image, and when you take the TV out of the box, there's a big, thick DVI-type copper cable which is only 3 ft long.

The issue is: how do you deliver that amount of data over longer distances? This is why, in the US, where there is a $12 bn (€9 bn) home-entertainment market, they are talking about hardwiring homes with networks. Once you start talking about speed and ease of installation, POF is the best solution. POF links for consumer applications are already being demonstrated at various home-networking shows by the likes of Fuji and Samsung in Japan, and other firms in the US. For example, Fuji demonstrated a 30 m-long TV link over POF last June.

What else are you developing apart from RCLEDs? Firecomms also has red singlemode and multimode VCSELs that operate at 665 nm. These are unique and we are currently testing them at modulation speeds of up to 3.2 Gbit/s over graded-index POF. This is the next generation of technology after RCLEDs that will support Gigabit Ethernet, Gigabit 1394 and optical interconnects for PCB-PCB applications. There are also applications for this technology outside of datacoms, for example in medicine, sensing and barcode scanners.

What is commercially available now? Right now, we are shipping the FC300 transceiver that we released in November. This consists of a red RCLED transmitter rated up to 250 Mbit/s and a discrete matched receiver. These are now being integrated into fibre-connector systems by companies such as Molex. Our channel to market for transceivers is through the connector companies. Lots of automotive connector firms are also working with these devices.

Why locate Firecomms in Ireland? Firstly, our relationship with the Tyndall Institute is ongoing and very strong. People look at Firecomms and they just see the tip of the iceberg; we are standing on this huge facility. We do our fabrication and lots of research at the Institute, and we also base some of our engineers there and pay for access rights.

The second reason is that being based in Ireland doesn't bring any disadvantages when it comes to doing business globally - Firecomms also has offices in the US, Japan and Germany. Here in Ireland we have access to a very good range of optical, photonics and microelectronics engineers from local universities and it's an attractive place for people to live in and relocate to. Getting good people to relocate to California say, is a very expensive process and, while Ireland is no longer as cheap as it was, it is certainly a place where you can do business and flourish. We also get a lot of support from Enterprise Ireland [a government funding agency] and there's an abundance of venture capital here.

Do you think that we will see more spin-offs and start-ups from places like the Tyndall Institute? Absolutely. I think that you will continue to see lots of spin-offs. There's a tremendous mentality within the universities now to leverage their research and try to create commercial entities. The Tyndall Institute is a very strong force for developing emerging technology and finding commercial homes for it. Science Foundation Ireland is also pumping millions of euros into research over the next couple of years, and is attracting very high-calibre researchers to settle here. There are loads of opportunities here.

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