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Fast Facts on Photonics

Fast Facts on Photonics 2017


One of the main reasons people are talking about photonics now is that the global demand for fast broadband capacity is growing exponentially, by about 70% a year.

  1. Mobile operators say the industry is at an inflection point. A 5G network will be needed to support the traffic along with new technologies such as driverless cars. You may know that telecoms are designing 5G networks, so that you can get a gigabit of data per second to a mobile phone or tablet in 2023. Photonics chip technology is essential to make this promise possible. With 18 million 5G masts planned in the world, the concept of fibre-to the antenna will be a big marketplace for those companies who have the right technology ready. That includes companies like LioniXInternational. The same group has also been involved in the design of a flat antenna in order to bring high-bandwith Internet to aircraft.


  1. Exponential bandwidth growth creates problems for datacentres. The number of smartphone users is forecast to grow from 2.1 billion in 2016 to around 2.5 billion in 2019, with smartphone penetration rates increasing as well. Just over 36 percent of the world’s population is projected to use a smartphone by 2018, up from about 10 percent in 2011. 


Datacentres – Because there’s no such thing as the cloud.

Your data is not stored in a real “cloud”. Each of the 1.47 billion smartphones sold in 2016 is connecting to servers in a datacentre. Many are run by companies like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google. The big numbers for Google were released by Urs Hoelzle of Google in March 2017. A detailed document from Google explaining the challenges in detail was one of the important input documents to the recent World Technology Mapping Forum.

Over the last 10 years, Google's infrastructure has scaled by TWO orders of magnitude. 1 billion hours of YouTube video are watched every day - that means 10,000 hours a second. There are 100 billion searches per month on Google servers.  Google is reaching out to the photonics community for solutions.

More details here:

From Cloud 1.0 to Cloud 3.0

Once connected we all expect our mobile devices to have fast Internet connections for on-demand television (Netflix), social media, cloud computing and voice over IP (Skype).

And if mixed reality technologies like Magic Leap and Hololens succeed, they will need quantum computing technologies with photonics chips inside.

That means we’re shifting more and more data. The global traffic shifted last month is more than the entire data shifted in the year 2007.

On top of this we have the “Internet of Things”, with all kinds of devices from pacemakers to power stations being somehow connected to the net.

In less than four years time, the number of Internet of Things connected devices will number 38.5 billion, that’s three times as many as the current figure of around 14 billion today.

Broadband’s Economic Impact

A 2013 study by Ericsson in 11 countries amongst 22,000 respondents has shown that doubling broadband speeds for an economy can add 0.3 percent to GDP growth.  Fast Internet is essential for innovation and productivity in business.

And at home, a faster broadband speed boosts personal productivity and allows for more flexible work arrangements.  A higher speed also opens possibilities for more advanced home-based businesses as a replacement, or complement to, an ordinary job. Broadband speed enables people to be more informed, better educated and socially and culturally enriched – ultimately leading to an accelerated career path.

A subsequent microeconomic investigation by Ericsson found:

  • Broadband access affects development: In OECD countries, gaining 4 Mbps of broadband increases household income by USD 2,100 per year. In BIC countries, introducing a 0.5 Mbps broadband connection increases household income by USD 800 per year
  • Broadband speed upgrades affect development: In OECD countries, upgrading from 0.5 Mbps to 4 Mbps increases income by around USD 322 per month. In BIC countries, upgrading from 0.5 to 4 Mbps increases income by USD 46 per month

So how do we cope?

Today the Internet is driven by light not electronics. Those fibre optic cables coming to our house are over 10 times faster than the old ADSL of a just few years ago. But there’s a challenge emerging for data centres.

All the video, audio and text that we’re exchanging with each other through the Internet is currently switched and connected by electronic silicon chips. We’re approaching the limits of how fast these chip can process the data using existing technology.

Using photonic-chips, that work with light rather than electons, is key to taking us into terabit-per-second era, dramatically increasing both data capacity and transmission speeds.

What EFFECT Photonics in Eindhoven has done is to take our knowledge of the science of photonics and apply it at a chip level. They are designing and building chips that can handle huge bandwidths of data in a far more energy efficient and cost-effective way. Just as applications of electronics have expanded dramatically since the first transistor was invented in 1948, many unique applications of photonics continue to emerge.

They have built what’s called a “Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing Optical System". They’re using another substrate called Indium Phosphide instead of silicon, because you can build light sources as well as the switches and the filters all on the same one chip. You can’t generate light sources directly on silicon.

Reducing the environmental impact of the Web

Photonics is also key to stopping the exponential rise in energy consumption by data centres.

Currently around 6% of the world’s energy is used to power datacentres. But that’s growing exponentially, so that by 2021 it means 85% of the world’s energy is being used for datacentres. Using light instead of electrons is the key to solving this energy challenge.  

At  research labs in Eindhoven and Enschede, researchers have been shrinking electronic components like lasers and optical sensors to a scale hundreds of times smaller than a single living cell. By putting these components on a single platform, integrated photonics is dramatically reducing the energy consumption.

So, Photonics is simultaneously reducing the Internet’s global carbon footprint and the overall cost “per bit”.

Light Drives Advanced Sensors

Photonics is also key to making new tools for measuring things we can't yet measure. With those tools, we can answer important new questions. And create new business and investment opportunities.

Light technologies are helping to revolutionize many sectors, especially advanced sensing. Here are a few examples.



  • Chips from Enschede are helping to reduce the cost and time for DNA sequencing. One of their clients isPacific Biosciences based in Menlo Park, California. They make DNA sequencing apparatus. They use a disposable chip module from LionIX International on which they conduct very fast DNA sequencing. The goal is to bring down the cost of characterizing the human genes to below US$1000 per run. For comparison, DNA sequencing in 2001 cost US$ 100 million per genome. Pacific Biosciences have developed a unique proprietary technology which means they can quickly sequence an enormous range of base-pairs, up to 50,000. More details here:
  • Dutch medical company Photonics Healthcarebased in Utrecht, The Netherlands is using photonics to measure oxygen levels inside living cells. Patients die when organ fail and organs fail when their cells are starved of oxygen. So, doctors have always wanted to measure oxygen-levels inside living cells. This company has developed the first patient monitor to do that. With their device, doctors get feedback to help them make important decisions on patient care. More details here:
  • Energy & the Environment

  • With growing concerns on reducing pollution, more accurate “air quality sensors on a photonics chip” are needed to advance environmental/climate science.
  • It’s one thing to set targets at the climate talks in Paris. But how do you measure that countries are actually complying with what they say they will do? Highly precise observations of air quality at local, regional and global scales are necessary for the realistic development of public policy, and to provide a quantitative basis for establishing regulatory compliance. Photonics sensors are already providing accurate answers.
  • Another Dutch company, Technobis, has developed photonic modules that allow us to monitor corrosion and metal fatigue within aircraft wings.
  • Photonics technology is key to organisations like the European Space Agency whose technology centre is based in Noordwijk. Communications technologies that go into both large and microsatellites need to be light in mass, resistant to radiation, have low-power comptuon and highly reliable (once launched it cannot be fixed). Dutch companies are working on solutions to help operators cope with the increasing bandwidth (Terabytes per second) that need to be downloaded from satellites measuring changes on the earth’s surface and atmosphere. In 2018, the European Space Agency will organise space Roadmapping workshops, using the input from the WTMF. They also need to develop next generation LIDAR technologies to maintain Europe’s leading position in this field.
  • Autonomous cars, intelligent buildings and industrial process control will contribute significantly to more efficient use of resources and meeting today’s environmental challenges. But all these systems will require lightening fast, secure data processing that can only be achieved when you use photonics. Remember, automonous vehicles will need data systems that have zero latency.
  • Gas detection. Light-driven photonics sensors can operate in harsh environments where electronics cannot go (dangers of sparks setting off an explosion). European companies have also developed methane detectors for use on farms or to monitor gases escaping from active volcanoes.
  • One delegate from New Zealand to the WTMF is involved in developing photonics experiments designed to detect early warnings of earthquakes.