Scottish researchers keep their powder dry

Apr 1st, 2003
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Last month (p14) we gave an overview of the commercialisation of the optical communications research in Scottish universities and the start-ups that have been spun off. But apart from such commercially oriented ventures, Scotland is also the hub of a network of organisations focused on more far-reaching photonic and optoelectronic research.

As the telecoms industry cuts back so severely that company-funded research is dwindling, such university-based research can provide a broader resource sustained by other non-telecom interests but which the telecoms industry can tap back into again after the anticipated recovery.

For example, the Ultrafast Photonics Collaboration (pictured) is a £12.5m interdisciplinary research collaboration funded for six years from its start in July 2000. Funding comes from the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to investigate femtosecond (10-15s) optical datacoms component technologies for future high-speed network (up to 100Tbit/s, compared with today's 100Gbit/s).

The UPC is coordinated by University of St Andrews, home to the Photonics Innovation Centre, and involves fellow Scottish universities of Glasgow and Herriot-Watt) and the English universities of Cambridge, Bristol and Imperial College and five telecoms equipment manufacturers (Agilent Technologies, Alcatel Optronics, Bookham, Nortel Networks and Sharp) all as equal partners.

Unfortunately, according to St Andrews' professor Wilson Sibbett during a recent visit by Lightwave Europe, the downturn in the telecoms industry has meant that the funding expected from those companies has not materialised to the extent expected. Fortunately for the universities and researchers involved, firstly the base resources from the EPSRC and the universities themselves is sufficient to sustain the core research, and secondly, some of the technology being developed can also be targeted at non-telecoms applications. For example, research on the core technology of ultra-fast (femtosecond) lasers (first developed by Sibbett) is now also being directed at industrial and medical/biophotonics applications. Likewise, other technologies involved in the collaborative project, such as photonic crystals, quantum dots and organic semiconductors also have other applications to be investigated.

Though this may seem like a diversion from the telecoms sector, at least the development of the technology is still progressing under the aegis of the collaboration, while the telecoms companies are unable to provide the originally expected level of funding. There is still the possibility for the telecoms sector to tap back into the developments.

A similar shift in emphasis is evident at the Institute of Photonics, which is based in the Wolfson Centre on Strathclyde University's John Anderson campus in Glasgow. Activities are organised into four research teams: Applications; All-Solid-State Lasers; III-V Semiconductor Optoelectronics; and Gallium Nitride Materials and Devices (with MOCVD growth and processing infrastructure for the latter sited off-campus in the facility of commercial optoelectronic epiwafer foundry Compound Semcionductor Technologies (CST) on the West of Scotland Science Park).

The institute was one of the first organisations to identify the potential of the dilute nitride GaInNAs (gallium indium arsenide nitride). This material can be grown in a composition with a photonic bandgap that allows emission of light with a wavelength of 1.3µm for fibre-optic telecom lasers based on cheaper gallium arsenide wafers rather than the currently used indium phosphide wafers. The institute also claims that it was first in Europe to demonstrate a room-temperature electrically injected GaInNAs vertical cavity surface emitting laser (VCSEL) at 1.3µm.

However, during Lightwave Europe's visit to the institute emphasis was placed instead on its development of wide-bandgap gallium nitride (GaN) materials, which emit light in the blue part of the visible spectrum. The institute is one of just a few organisations worldwide to have produced GaN microLED arrays for display applications, with elements as small as 10µm and currently up to 96x128 elements.

But, as this issue's article on LEDs for not just illumination but also telecoms applications shows (p7), research focused on apparently non-telecom-related applications such as displays can ultimately benefit telecoms.

So, while the telecoms industry may be retrenching, especially in terms of advanced materials and devices, with many start-ups having disappeared, the research expertise in the Scottish universities, which is currently seeking sanctuary in other sectors, will re-emerge in telecoms with its capability to provide innovation in the telecoms sector undimmed.

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