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Environmental regulations 'jeopardize' European photonics

17 Apr 2014

REACH and RoHS directives could endanger availability of raw materials for optics, hears conference.

European production of raw materials seen as vital for a whole host of industrial and medical optics applications is under threat from environmental regulations.

Peter Hartmann, director of market and customer relations at Schott’s Advanced Optics division in Germany, and Wenko Süptitz from the photonics industry group Spectaris told delegates at an SPIE Photonics Europe industry session that getting around directives such as the Restriction on the use of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) – designed to restrict the environmental impact of chemicals such as lead and arsenic – was becoming such a distraction that companies may decide to exit the business altogether.

Under the proposed restrictions, Schott would no longer be able to make optical glasses containing the banned substances inside the European Union – although optical components containing them could be imported from outside the continent.

Lobbying for exemption
And although lobbying by Hartmann and others should result in another a five-year exemption for optical materials when the directive is renewed in 2016, the ongoing uncertainty and cost of that effort will jeopardize innovation and European manufacturing jobs - at a time when the European Commission is actively trying to rebalance the Union’s economy in exactly that direction.

Hartmann believes that even gaining another period of exemption would be problematic, because of long-term uncertainty and ongoing costs of the lobbying effort. “It could be the end of optical design [in Europe],” he said. “It’s no joke.”

Hartmann cited endoscopes as one key example of a technology that could be affected, describing them as “full of glass” and requiring lead compounds to ensure sufficiently high transmission of light in the blue spectrum – critical for diagnostic capability inside the abdominal cavity.

"Replacing these optical instruments with ones using lead-free glass cuts away blue-violet light, an important part of the spectrum, and could result in a higher risk of cutting into the wrong tissue."

"The prohibition of lead and cadmium will lead to the loss of many essential properties of specialty glass such as refraction and filtering," he added, saying that it would impair the performance of optical systems strongly and be harmful to the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

Innovation “suppressed”
As well as RoHS, there is also the newer REACH (regulation on registration, evaluation, authorization, and restriction of chemicals) list of “substances of very high concern” (SVHC), which would make the use of certain chemicals completely forbidden.

At the moment arsenic is at the top of the SVHC list, meaning a “sunset” date for the use of As2O3 glass (used in Schott’s “Zerodur” zero-expansion optics) in mid-2015, while boron oxide – a key ingredient in widely used borosilicate glasses – could also be added to the list.

“There is a big danger than companies will just quit [making] certain materials,” said Süptitz, adding that the uncertainty could impact investment in new glass developments in Europe. “Innovation would be strongly suppressed, or made impossible.”

Hartmann says that while optics industry representatives agree that human health and the environment should be protected against toxic, carcinogenic, and other hazardous substances, many of the hazardous raw materials listed in REACH and RoHS are harmless once transformed into optical elements like lenses, prisms, microscopes, and infrared materials.

Glass production is already conducted under strict safety regulations, and in fact provides a way to “lock” those hazardous substances away, he adds.

The Schott director also points out that the glasses under threat are crucial in the automotive, aviation, shipbuilding, and building-construction industries. “Even the food industry needs optical-measurement equipment for quality inspection and machine alignment.”

The key date for those lobbying for an exemption from RoHS regulations is January 21, 2015, which is 18 months before the July 2016 expiration of the current RoHS directive.

Hartmann and Spectaris want to raise awareness of the threat posed by the two directives to the wider European photonics industry, and would ideally like to work towards a permanent exemption for optical materials in the EC’s next "recast" of RoHS legislation – as has been achieved previously for cadmium used in CdTe-based solar panels made by First Solar.

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