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Twente high-tech spin-offs to develop 5G optical chips

24 Dec 2015

EU investing €1.6 million in 'HAMLET' research project with Solmates, Lionix and Satrax.

Dutch nanotechnology companies Solmates, LioniX and Satrax - all spin-offs of the University of Twente - have together been awarded a European Union (EU) grant of €1.6 million for the development of energy-efficient photonics “micro-light” switches intended for the telecoms sector, in a project called HAMLET.

The optical switches, which are intended to be used in mobile network base stations, will be specified to enable the transition from 4G to the much faster 5G network. The developers say the switches will be “one million times more energy-efficient and much faster than existing comparable technology”. The statement announcing the partnership project said, “high-tech ecosystem in the area around the University of Twente research institute MESA+ and Kennispark Twente make this development possible – there is a whole innovation chain here, within a radius of several hundred meters.”

The context of the HAMLET development project, explained the university and the companies, is that telecoms companies cannot keep up with the constant demand for faster mobile internet with the current technology. This is why telecoms companies are using infrastructures that process information with the use of light more and more often. This is a quicker way to process more information.

Overcoming limitations

Mobile internet needs switching systems that can convert radio signals into light signals. There are already many optical switches available for this purpose, but these usually have technical limitations: the speed is too slow and the local heat generation on the chips is also a problem. In order to enable the transfer to 5G on mobile phones, a new generation of light switches needs to be developed; switches that are part of intelligent antenna systems that optimize the coverage area and the capacity of the network.

In HAMLET, Solmates, LioniX and Satrax are to create optical switches on chips that are one thousand times faster and one million times more energy efficient. The switches generate much less heat due to much lower energy consumption, which is essential for the robust systems of telecoms providers. This technology could also have applications in medical diagnostics.

The EU is investing €3.4 million in HAMLET, which is a Horizon 2020 project (number 688750). In addition to the three companies from Twente mentioned above, research institute Fraunhofer HHI (Germany), the company Linkra (Italy), and the Technical University of Athens (Greece) are also involved.

Twente’s high-tech ecosystem

The three nanotechnology companies in Twente are the result of research at the University of Twente research institute MESA+.

Satrax develops intelligent antenna systems for aeroplanes, satellites and base stations. These systems can be automatically directed, thus reducing the risk of dropping a connection. Integrated photonic circuits play an essential role in these systems. Paul van Dijk, CEO of Satrax, explained, “What makes Twente such a successful high-tech environment, is the high-tech ecosystem surrounding MESA+ and Kennispark Twente. There is a whole innovation chain here, within a radius of just a few hundred meters.”

Solmates produces equipment that deposits nano-layers which are used in the semiconductor industry, among other things. This technology, developed by Solmates and based on pulsed laser deposition, is highly suitable for applying the novel materials on substrates, which will be a requirement in future generations of computer chips. “The fact that many successful high-tech companies stay here really says it all,” said Matthijn Dekkers, CTO at Solmates.

LioniX develops and produces chips based on micro and nanotechnology for fluidic and optics applications. In addition to product development, the company also facilitates the production of chips that customers can use as enablers in their products.

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

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