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Israeli ingenuity powers photonics sector surge

08 Nov 2007

Israel's government attributes the country's success in photonics to a combination of strong academia carrying out world-class research, a well-developed optoelectronics industry and an active venture-capital community. Tim Hayes went to see for himself.

The Israeli photonics industry employs around 4000 people in 100 companies, a considerable presence in a country with a total labour force of only 2.8 million. Israel's economy is growing fast. The country has experienced five years of continuous growth, the longest period in its history, including a projected 5% growth during 2007. In 2006 the World Economic Forum ranked Israel as the 15th most competitive economy in the world.

That growth has been fuelled by a steady increase in exports and foreign investment. Exports have risen by an average of 13% over each of the past three years, while overall foreign investment in 2006 was a record $25.8 bn (€18.1 bn), a 171% increase over 2005.

Military applications have historically been the main feature of the country's industry, and Israel will account for 10% of the world's military equipment exports in 2007. Today, the military presence in the optics field is falling. "10 years ago perhaps 90% of our business was military-related. Today it's somewhere between 40 and 60%," commented Yitzhak Raif, corporate vice-president of Ophir Optronics' Optics Group, one of Israel's largest optics companies.

At the other end of scale, start-up companies are proliferating, encouraged by a culture of entrepreneurship and the ease of bringing new products to market. "This is a land of start-ups. There are more than 2000 high-tech start-ups in Israel," said Niles Fleischer, vice-president of business development at NanoMaterials. "Israel has the third highest venture capital investment in the world in absolute terms, but per capita it is number one. There have been some rapid changes: this business park was an orange grove a few years ago."

Established player: Ophir Optronics
Ophir Optronics in Jerusalem manufactures and supplies infrared (IR) optics and laser measurement equipment to the military, security, commercial and industrial markets. Formed in 1976, it is an established player in the Israeli market, employing over 100 people locally.

The Ophir Optics Group produces optical lens assemblies for MWIR and LWIR cooled and uncooled cameras, optical elements, and high-power CO2 optics for industrial lasers. The Laser Measurement Group produces equipment to test the power, energy and profile of lasers.

The company recognizes that local factors have contributed to its success. "We manufacture in Israel, which until recently was a low-cost country," explained Raif. "The internal market for us was small, only a fraction of a percent. And it helped that our major competitor was American as they had to negotiate US export regulations."

As well as two manufacturing sites in Israel, Ophir also has a plant in Massachusetts, US. "As a company, we'll go where ever the business takes us, transferring the technology whenever possible," said Raif. "But the core know-how will remain in Israel."

The Ophir Optics Group has enjoyed strong growth in each of the last four years, a pattern Raif expects to continue. "IR applications are growing faster than the industry can supply new products," he said. "We are seeing a lot of activity in low-cost optics, and a lot of R&D is focused on low-cost cameras for consumer applications."

Ophir's automotive market is growing as IR optics begin to appear in luxury cars. "Soon all luxury cars of BMW 5 level will incorporate IR optics, and eventually the price will fall to the point where cheaper cars will incorporate them too," said Raif.

Commercial applications are also increasing, especially the security and surveillance markets. "Soon IR cameras will be able to substitute for visible light cameras in buildings and in smoke-vision systems used to evacuate buildings," added Raif. "Units for fire-fighting applications are currently expensive, anywhere between $8000 and $14,000. But as more are sold, the price will fall."

Established player: Orbotech
From its Yavne headquarters, Orbotech provides automated optical inspection (AOI), laser imaging and computer-aided manufacturing technologies for electronics manufacturers. Formed in 1981 and employing 1500 people, the company is active in three different markets: bare printed circuit boards (PCBs), assembled PCBs, and flat-panel displays (FPDs). The company has 400 engineers working on research, with an R&D budget of $60 m.

Inspection machines for bare PCBs account for 60% of sales, with inspection of glass panels for FPDs another 23%. China alone accounts for 30% of the company's sales.

"In our inspection systems, Orbotech's core technologies are the optics systems designed to remain accurate even at high magnifications, the lighting systems able to illuminate defects just a few microns in size, and data acquisition to process the resulting data," said Dan Zemer, director of new technologies.

Orbotech's PCB inspection machine uses an LED light source shining a line illumination onto a PCB from two angles, with a camera positioned 35 mm above looking for defects. "Our camera's resolution level is of the order of microns, and at that level a single mobile telephone could contain thousands of features that need to be spotted," Zemer said.

As flat-panel displays are getting larger, so inspection machines are growing alongside them. Orbotech has developed a machine in which the glass sits on an air cushion, steered on its course by controlled areas of vacuum. This concept was implemented on inline systems, measuring critical dimension and overlay.

In FPD inspection the number crunching involved is daunting, as the system must analyse results from several square metres in about one minute. "We've developed our own in-house processing algorithm to handle this," said Zemer. "30 flat-panel fabs have already implemented our EYES-2020 package, connecting all production stages of the automated inspection process and providing data for the process engineers."

In a land of start-ups, established companies such as Orbotech need to fight their corner. "In Israel it can be difficult to attract the best people," Zemer commented. "The best students have a choice, whether to go into one of the many start-ups or into established companies like Orbotech. We're pro-active, heavily involved with university physics and maths departments, actively searching for the best people."

The company also takes an active role in determining its future direction. "We are very forward-looking. A group of 30 technologists and experts within the company, called the Technology Infrastructures Group, specifically looks at new concepts, new avenues for the future and new technologies to develop. This is a different philosophy than some Israeli companies adopt." By acquiring Danish Diagnostic Development based in Copenhagen, Orbotech recently established its medical division and made its first strategic move into medical imaging technology, a growing market with customers willing to pay for differentiating imaging technologies.

Start-up: NanoMaterials
NanoMaterials is the R&D centre of ApNano Materials, a private US company commercializing nanospheres and nanotubes. The company's nanospheres are made from multiwalled inorganic fullerenes with a nested onion-skin structure. Established in 2002 and funded by private investors, its technology is based on a decade's worth of R&D at Rehovot's Weizmann Institute of Science.

"When the particles are combined in a nickel matrix, the result can be a 'black coating', absorbing as much of 98% of visible and near-IR irradiated light without reflectance," said Niles Fleischer, vice-president of business development. "No organic materials are involved, and the coatings combine zero outgassing under vacuum with high temperature stability up to 1000 ÂșC."

Applications include solar power-station towers, night-vision systems and telescopes. This optics breakthrough is a direct spin-off from Israel's national focus on nanotechnology, an effort that has led to the country ranking second in the world for scientific articles in the field per capita.

The academic engine
Government funding and historical circumstances have combined to give Israel a thriving optics research community. Targeted research programmes from the state and a strong tradition of academics returning to Israel from high-calibre posts abroad have kept up the momentum, despite there being only seven universities in the country.

There are also strong links between academic institutions and industry. Technology from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot is at the heart of the nanospheres production process used by NanoMaterials, while a faculty dean from the Technion sits on the advisory board guiding Oree. In Israel, co-operation between the two communities is commonplace.

The Technion, or Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, teaches its undergraduates only in Hebrew, a clear statement of intent to keep the country at the forefront of academic research. One focus of research at the Technion is nonlinear optics, as researcher Sharon Shwartz explains.

"We have demonstrated that laser light causes significant lattice deformation within the bulk of CdZnTe:V crystals, which increases linearly with light intensity and quadratically with an applied electric field up to 0.15%," he said. "This light-induced electrostriction is accompanied by an enormous enhancement of the electro-optic effect, resulting in a change in refractive index of about 0.01."

This could lead to applications in light deflection and the manufacture of controllable prisms, in which the extent of deflection depends on the intensity of the applied illumination.

At the Weizmann Institute, optics research is carried out in the physics, chemistry and mathematics faculties. There is no engineering faculty as such at Weizmann, which is not the only unusual feature of the Institute. It has less than 1000 students, while the Technion has 12,000. "We do not take undergraduates, only higher degrees, masters and PhDs," explained Yaron Silberberg, dean of the Faculty of Physics, at Weizmann. "Teaching is not the main mission, and the boundaries between faculties are almost non-existent. Graduate students are the engine of what we do here."

At the same time as the range of government funding available has led to a proliferation of start-ups, the Weizmann Institute has moved away somewhat from state support. "Our funding comes from an independent higher-education body without too much government control," Silberberg pointed out. "Lately there's been some erosion of this ideal, but even so, about 35% of our budget is connected to government sources, which is about half the figure of some other universities."

Yeda Research and Development is responsible for technology transfer from the Weizmann Institute into industry. It holds an exclusive agreement to market and commercialize new developments emerging from the Institute's laboratories.

With established and emerging Israeli companies exploiting domestic photonics research so successfully, the momentum in photonics R&D at Weizmann is a fair reflection of the energy in the field across the whole country. "We've just hired one staff member in plasmonics, one in quantum computing and another in attosecond physics," commented Silberberg. "This entire field is bubbling."

•  Thanks to: Smadar Mizrahi and Uri Pachter of the Israel Export Institute, Gil Erez at the Israeli Embassy, and David Ezra.

• This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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