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Europe defines strategy for photonics research

30 Jul 2002

Phillip Hill talks to the coordinator for photonics funding at the European Commission about his plans for the next EU funding programme, which kicks off this autumn.

From Opto & Laser Europe July/August 2002

Brussels is preparing to administer another dose of funding to European research via the 6th Framework Programme (FP6), and the good news for readers of OLE is that photonics looks set to play an important role. The total budget for research has been fixed at €17.5 bn and suitable candidates for investment must now be selected. The first call for FP6-specific project proposals will take place this November, with projects launching from March 2003.

The task of allocating FP6 funding to photonics-related projects falls to Henri Rajbenback, photonics coordinator of the Information Society Technology (IST) Directorate General. Rajbenback is keen to address concerns that Europe risks falling behind the US in the photonics field. Owing in part to their differing investment policies, the gap between Europe and the US has been widening and the EU research effort has become fragmented.

Rajbenback is also keen to promote greater European integration within projects. FP6 will be aiming to combine the research activities of associate and candidate states in eastern Europe - such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - with those of EU countries.

At this year's IST Microelectronics and Optoelectronics Symposium held in May in Grenoble, Rajbenback said: "Ask not what Europe can do for photonics, ask what photonics can do for Europe." This philosophy underpins the remit of the 6th Framework Programme. EU funding for photonics in the coming four to five years will be more focused - with definite commercial goals in mind - and will be designed to encourage EU-based projects to encompass more non-EU laboratories.

Photonics is set to gainUnder the current 5th framework funding programme, IST spent €150 m on supporting a total of 70 photonics projects, involving work on a range of devices including tunable vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs), resonant-cavity LEDs, optical interconnects, quantum-dot lasers and microdisplays. Of the five key research areas that will be funded under FP6, IST is one of the largest and has been allocated €3.65 bn - more than 20% of the total amount of funding available.

On top of the dedicated photonics funding it will receive from IST, the photonics field is also likely to gain from its significant role in the remaining four key research areas: nanotechnology; genomics and biotechnology; aeronautics and space; and energy, transport and the environment.

"The only place where we put out a call specifically for photonics is the IST programme," explained Rajbenback. "But in other areas, LED research could fall under 'lighting', and new imaging techniques and short pulse sources could come under 'medical diagnostics', for example."

According to Rajbenback, individual projects will be bigger in FP6. The total funding available for photonics is likely to be much higher, with a move towards more long-term research. "The emphasis this time will be on integrating the whole 'food chain', from R&D to exploitation," Rajbenback explained.

Parallel funding schemesFunding schemes under FP6 will fall into two categories: integrated projects (IPs), which will fetch investment on a scale of tens of millions of euros, and networks of excellence (NOEs), which will receive funding in the region of a few million euros each.

IPs will be large-scale endeavours that will deal with all of the elements of a particular technology chain. Up to 50% of the total cost of such projects will be funded by FP6. It is likely that there will be a continued focus on optical components for telecommunications within IPs. One area highlighted by Rajbenback is broadband access, with the emphasis on low-cost photonic components and interfaces for high-bandwidth (1 Gbit/s) transmission to consumers and companies.

"By 2010, we want to deploy the network," he said. There is still a great deal of work to be done, however. "We need packaging, polymers, fibre connectors. Should it be glass or plastic in the last mile? What wavelength? What packaging?"

The aim of the NOEs will be to improve scientific collaboration in Europe, and the scheme will focus on basic research into fields such as photonic crystals. To form an NOE, at least three participants from universities, research institutes and industrial laboratories must work together.

The overall goal of FP6 will be to encourage all European laboratories - including those in central and eastern Europe - to work together. The IST programme will therefore not support two separate projects in one area. Instead, teams working in the same field will have to combine to create what Rajbenback describes as a virtual laboratory.

An important factor in the thinking behind FP6 is the need for a smooth transition between ongoing FP5 projects, some of which have already been funded as far ahead as 2005, and FP6. Even now, seven new FP5 projects in the fields of telecoms and nanomaterials are due to be given the go-ahead between July and September.

Many of these projects will be integrated or extended into FP6 projects. This is the case, for example, for GSQ, a project researching VCSELs and quantum-dot lasers made from GaInAs that emit light at 1.3 µm. The project is due to finish in February 2003 but will be extended to include input from two Polish institutes: the Institute of Electron Technology in Warsaw and ITME in Lodz.

Another example is AGETHA, a €2.5 m project looking at green and amber LEDs and resonant-cavity LEDs for plastic optical fibre applications. Its funding was due to run out in February, but it will now be extended to include eastern European laboratories. "Apart from the size and integration aspects of FP6, another important difference [from FP5] is the interest being shown by associate and candidate countries," said Rajbenback.

The VGF project, initiated under FP5, offers another example of the integration of non-EU eastern European science into overall EU policy. Running until August 2004, VGF will be investigating gallium phosphide substrates for high-brightness LEDs. It will be coordinated by a number of Slovak partners, such as Phostec, a spin-out from the Academy of Sciences in Bratislava.

The need for ultra-bright sources is evident in the telecoms field but could also be important in medical applications. This is one example of an area in which photonics will cross over into research areas outside of IST. Nanotechnology is another likely area for crossover. Although the official funding for this programme is targeted at materials and production processes, it is likely to involve some photonics aspects.

Strengthening research linksThe trade-off for the allocation of more funding to a specific research area is that projects in overlapping fields will be required to join forces. This, however, can only be a good thing for improving the strength of European research as a whole.

"This should also help us to include smaller labs, avoid 'closed clubs' of known universities and research centres, and open ourselves up to newcomers," explained Rajbenback. "That's the trend for the 6th Framework - a shift towards longer-term, higher-risk activities."

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