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White House committee backs 'photonics foundry' idea

23 Apr 2014

Action on domestic sources of critical materials and an advanced prototyping facility for photonic integrated circuits are recommended by 'fast-track' action committee.

The “Fast Track Action Committee on Optics and Photonics” convened last year by the US National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) has come up with seven specific recommendations to drive future photonics research in the country.

They include setting up a photonics device “foundry” for academic users and small businesses, developing devices at “exotic” wavelengths beyond the infrared and visible range, and new components operating at extremely low light levels and powers.

Set up in response to the National Research Council (NRC) report into optics and photonics published in 2012, the committee has identified the “cross-cutting” areas of optics and photonics research that it sees as likely to have the greatest future benefit in terms of basic and early applied research.

Its priorities are split into two categories of recommendations, namely “research opportunities” and “capability opportunities”, deemed to address specific research goals and to help address what are seen as critical gaps in resources that are inhibiting US research in optics and photonics.

Domestic foundry
The recommendation given the highest overall priority in the committee's report is to set up a kind of photonics “foundry” to provide integrated devices for academic and small-business users at a reasonable cost.

“The recommendation responds to a recurring theme,” wrote the fast-track committee, referring to numerous scientists who briefed them about the need for inexpensive access to fabrication capabilities to enable state-of-the-art basic and early applied research on integrated photonic-electronic devices.

“This capacity increase would contribute over the next decade to continued US technology innovation and allow the realization of growing opportunities in ‘Big Data’.”

However, because of time and resource constraints (the fast-track committee met for only six months), it offers no specific recommendations about the photonics “foundry” opportunity. Instead, it suggests that a more detailed study is first undertaken to determine exactly what is required by researchers.

Addressing grand challenges
The motivation for developing wider access to increasingly sophisticated photonic-electronic integrated circuits and systems comes from the critical role that they are expected to play in two of the five “grand challenges” identified in the original NRC report – namely increasing optical network capacity and the integration of photonics and electronics.

“US innovation in silicon photonics is presently limited by the lack of access by academic researchers and small businesses to affordable, US-based, commercial fabrication facilities capable of manufacturing complex integrated photonic-electronic devices,” states the latest report, pointing out that this has compelled researchers to use off-shore fabrication facilities in Asia and Europe.

That it seen as a risk in terms of intellectual property, while the high cost and long delays experienced by US researchers in fabricating such devices slows the pace of innovation because lower-risk incremental advances have become favored over potentially revolutionary designs.

That is seen as a problem for silicon photonics development in particular, and the report points towards the impact of open microelectronics foundries like “MOSIS”, which it describes as “critical” for academic researchers and small companies without their own manufacturing facilities.

“Analogous open foundries in silicon and hybrid photonics could help promote US research, development, and commercialization in integrated photonic-electronic technology by providing affordable and convenient access to experimental fabrication facilities to test new device designs, fabrication approaches, and materials,” they say.

Exotic photonics and material risks
As well as the foundry idea, the report recommends a focus on the development of what it calls “exotic” photonics, by which it means compact active and passive devices operating at unconventional wavelengths.

“Extending the generation of coherent radiation to wavelengths outside of the visible and near-infrared and making the sources compact, affordable, and easy-to-use will open new areas of research and discovery,” it states, highlighting opportunities in the terahertz and gigahertz spectral range, and even at X-ray frequencies.

The third recommendation listed among the “capability opportunities” involves materials – and acknowledges the risks associated with overseas or single-source production of certain infrared, nonlinear and nanostructured substances.

The committee suggests developing a prioritized list of strategic optical and photonic materials needed for the US, with an inventory highlighting the quantities needed, available quality levels relative to requirements, any supplier gaps, and whether research into alternative or promising new materials and methods to measure material quality is needed.

One area that the committee decided not to address in its report was solar energy – even though that was highlighted as a “grand challenge” in the NRC’s original tome – because the US Department of Energy (DOE) is already investing significantly in this area through its SunShot Initiative and other projects.

Strong reception in DC
The National Photonics Initiative (NPI), set up by optics.org publisher SPIE, The Optical Society (OSA) and others to follow up on the NRC's findings, said it "applauded" the new report. NPI steering committee chairman Tom Baer said:

"The recommendations provide a critical outline as to research opportunities and research-related capabilities that, if supported, will bridge gaps in technology and accelerate basic research progress and applications in optics and photonics."

Baer told optics.org that high-level discussions with the federal government were going "extremely well", and NPI representatives getting a positive reception from key decision-makers in the Obama Administration. "We're definitely having an impact," he said.

"There's a lot going on and we're working to identify the appropriate funding vehicles," added Baer. One key idea at a relatively advanced stage is to use the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) as a funding framework - something that would be a particularly good fit with a foundry or advanced prototyping facility.

Baer is hopeful that a decision on that will be made in the near future. If successful, it could result in around $200 million of matched public-private funding over 5-7 years. He says of the potential impact of such a facility:

"This innovation would be strongly enhanced if researchers and innovators in academic institutions, small and large companies, and government laboratories were enabled by the government to inexpensively prototype photonics integrated circuits."

"Wise and useful plan"
SPIE's president Philip Stahl said that the society was "delighted" with the attention and insights in the committee's recommendations, as well as the strong endorsement of the original NRC report.

“That the recommendations and the report both align with Obama Administration priorities such as the BRAIN initiative is strong evidence of the importance of optics and photonics technologies in enabling potential applications," Stahl said, describing its recommendations as a "wise and useful plan".

Meanwhile OSA's chief executive Liz Rogan said in a statement from the society: "We urge the White House and Congress to work together to ensure the recommendations in the new report are implemented so the US remains a leader in scientific research and development."

The fast-track committee, which was chaired by Clark Cooper from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Gerald Fraser from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), included several representatives of the US military and aerospace community - important at a time when significant federal spending decisions remain somewhat hamstrung by a gridlocked US Congress.

Among the committee members were Office of Naval Research program officer Ravindra Athale, Viktoria Greanya from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Office of the Secretary of Defense associate director Dai Hyun Kim, DARPA program manager Prem Kumar, NASA’s deputy chief engineer William Luck, Joseph Mait – now chief scientist at the US Army Research Laboratory – and Germot Pomrenke from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Their report and recommendations can be downloaded here in .pdf format.

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