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Scotland showcases its optoelectronics flair

24 Jan 2007

Scotland, UK, is home to a thriving optoelectronics sector. Nadya Anscombe talks to scientists in academia and local firms to find out the reasons behind the region’s sustained success and new technologies that are in the pipeline.

The fact that Scotland has a strong optoelectronics industry and an excellent reputation for optoelectronics research is no accident. It is the result of a concerted effort by the Scottish government and universities, and is a formula that has been copied by many other countries. Scotland was, for example, one of the first countries in the world to set up a national optoelectronics association and has a strong record in attracting foreign optoelectronics firms.

The area around Glasgow has been particularly successful in pulling in companies such as Coherent and Thales, and in commercializing its optoelectronics research. The city itself has three universities – the University of Glasgow, Strathclyde University and Glasgow Caledonian University. These institutions have been the breeding ground for many optoelectronics start-ups including Kymata, Intense and Cascade Technologies.

Strategic investment

The University of Glasgow's Department of Electronics and Electrical Engineering is one of the largest in terms of size and funding in the UK. Richard De La Rue, professor of optoelectronics, told OLE: "Our department has certainly benefited from the government's strategic investment in optoelectronics."

The department has a long-established strength in electronic and optoelectronic device fabrication, and an important development is the opening of the new James Watt Nanofabrication Centre (JWNC). This hi-tech cleanroom complex consolidates the previous fabrication facilities, which were sited in 10 distinct areas of the department. Designed over several levels, it even has a clean staircase between floors.

"It has certainly made an impact on our work, for example in photonic crystals," said De La Rue. "With the new electron-beam writing machine we can write up to 10 times faster than with the previous machine." The facility has enabled the manufacture of several new devices including semiconductor ring lasers.

Kelvin Nanotechnology, a company set up by the department in 1997 to commercialize its technology, also benefits from the JWNC. The firm provides R&D and prototyping services, and has a strategic partnership with Glasgow-based firm Photonix for large-scale manufacturing. The company is a not-for-profit joint venture founded by the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, and houses their semiconductor growth facilities.

Photonix is supported by Scottish Enterprise – Scotland's main economic development agency and a key reason why Scotland is so strong in optoelectronics. "One example of how our department has benefited from Scottish Enterprise support is the Enterprise Fellowship scheme that pays a researcher to take a sabbatical year to learn commercial skills," said De La Rue. "One of the founders of our most successful start-up company, Intense, took part in this scheme."

Intense is a supplier of laser-array modules and high-power lasers for several industries including print, imaging, defence and aerospace. It was set up to commercialize the process of quantum-well intermixing, which enables passive regions to be integrated at the facets of laser emitters, arrays and bars to increase performance, reliability and manufacturing yield.

While Intense is a success story, De La Rue believes that starting up a company is not necessarily always the best way of commercializing research. "It often means that a research group loses some of its best people and income generators," he said. "Each situation must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but licensing should also be considered when commercializing a technology." Tim Holt, chief executive officer of the University of Strathclyde's Institute of Photonics, agrees. "We are not keen on encouraging companies to spin out of our institute because we want to maintain our team," he told OLE. "We prefer to spin in our intellectual property into companies by licensing our technology."

Now 10 years old, the Institute of Photonics bridges the gap between what universities do and what industry needs. It is a non-departmental unit and is funded by research councils, government agencies and industry. "We work with the physics and engineering departments at the university and undertake research that we think has a commercial potential in 3–5 years' time," explained Holt. He believes that one of the keys to the institute's success has been its interdisciplinary approach.

Research at the institute is concentrated into four technical areas: all-solid-state laser development; III-V semiconductor optoelectronic devices; gallium nitride materials and devices; and applications. A significant proportion of the work of the applications team concentrates on biophotonics, including biomedical imaging and photonics-based diagnostics. One example of the institute's interdisciplinary approach is its micro-LEDs project (see "Micro LEDs"). Born out of the work of the GaN and semiconductor optoelectronics teams, micro-LEDs have a huge variety of applications including displays, biosensors and biomedical imaging.

Despite Holt's cautious approach, researchers from Strathclyde have been particularly successful at starting up firms. Microlase Optical Systems, now Coherent Scotland, M Squared Lasers and Cascade Technologies are all Strathclyde start-ups.

Microlase was set up in 1992 by researchers from Strathclyde University's physics department who were working on new light sources for solid-state laser technology. Coherent bought the firm in 1999 and it currently has approximately 80 staff.

M Squared Lasers develops and manufactures diode-pumped solid-state lasers and related systems. The company recently announced that it will commercialize a novel diode-pumped, mid-infrared, nanosecond optical parametric oscillator technology developed by fellow Scottish university St Andrews. M Squared Lasers will use this technology to develop a range of compact, hands-free, highly efficient mid-infrared sources.

Cascade Technologies was spun out in 2003 to commercialize gas sensing systems based on quantum cascade lasers (QCLs). The firm patented a way of chirping QCLs and uses this technique for various applications including infrared countermeasures in the defence industry and looking for the chemical fingerprints of gases in environmental, defence and security markets. Richard Cooper, business development director at Cascade, said: "We recently signed a deal with Lucent Technologies over intellectual property relating to QCL devices that means that we can source our lasers from manufacturers anywhere in the world, even from research groups who do not own a licence." Cascade has also recently received DTI funding for a consortium including Shell for oil prospecting (see "On the nose: ethane detection") and signed a licensing deal with BP to monitor gas emissions from ships.

Rapid expansion

BP Marine, a subsidiary of BP, has taken a licence from Cascade for access to the QCL technology and Cascade has developed a new emissions monitoring system for the marine industry. QCL technology is lightweight, virtually maintenance-free and has capabilities to measure greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides.

"Because we chirp the QCL, it can scan wavelengths and detect several gases in seconds," said Cooper. "Recent VC funding and commercial contracts have meant that we have been able to move to new headquarters in Stirling. We are expanding rapidly and are currently recruiting additional personnel including laser physicists."

Cascade currently has approximately 20 employees and is yet another company whose start-up was helped by funding from Scottish Enterprise. There are on average five optoelectronics start-ups per year in Scotland, according to Chris Gracie from the Scottish Optoelectronics Association (SOA). "This is a large number when you consider that Scotland has only 8% of the UK's population," he said.

Since its launch in 1994, more than 85 organizations have become members of the SOA. These include companies, universities and research organizations all of which have an interest in developing the optoelectronics industry in Scotland. "Taking research into industry has been a priority for us for many years," said Gracie. "We like to think that the success of the Scottish optoelectronics industry is due to the processes we have helped put in place from funding blue-sky research through to the developmental stage."

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