Ireland's optoelectronics sector bucks the trend


The Irish government's Department of Finance last month warned that the Republic's economy, which boomed in the late 1990s and started to wane in 2001, is unlikely to recover this year. The former "Celtic tiger" showed the strongest growth rate in Europe over the past 10 years but that growth rate is now expected to be just 1.5% in 2003, compared with the government's previous prediction of 3.5%.

However, one sector of the economy expected to increase its contribution to Ireland's technology-based turnover and international reputation is the numerous photonics- and optics-related activities—whether at the research level in the universities or at the commercial level in the many startups, primarily based around Cork and Dublin. In a good position to assess the state and the potential of these diverse optoelectronics activities is Prof. Gabriel Crean, director of the NMRC, Ireland's high-tech research centre, based in Cork.

"The Irish government made some good decisions in the 1980s and 1990s in prioritising certain areas of development such as electronics and microelectronics, not least establishing the NMRC," he observes. "We have previously focused on biotechnology, but now one of the main focuses of 'Enterprise Ireland' is on photonics. We have been successful in the area of photonics. Key developments have been in visible sources for datacoms, and we have been effective in addressing what we regard as a technical bottleneck. For example, Firecomms [founded in May 2001] was a spinout of the NMRC; that company now has the record for development of high-output, red VCSELs for POF [polymer optical fibre] applications."

The NMRC is now looking at interconnects and waveguides from three generations of waveguides: fused fibres; silicon technology (such as at Bookham Technology's silica on silicon approach); and novel manufacturing approaches (like the one used in data CD production and polymer technology). Typically, the centre works with tier one companies such as Philips, Infineon, and Sony.

So what is Crean's view of the current situation facing telecoms and its consequences for new business development? "The key focus for us is the integration of packaging activities being driven by cost considerations, additional function, or speed. The deployment of 40G isn't happening; 10G is happening, but it's still too expensive. The NMRC is involved in the whole area of planar lightwave circuits [PLCs]. In the whole PLC area is where we are looking for economy solutions. Considering sol-gel technology, for example, NMRC is heading two of the only 'flagship' European projects in this area. We will be conducting a fifth sol-gel and polymer PLC projects."

One of the numerous spinouts from the NMRC is Optical Metrology Innovation (OMI), based on a new technology business park close to Cork Airport. OMI has developed two ranges of products that are available: OMI Probe and OMI Strain, which measure the characteristics of epitaxially grown semiconductor layers. The devices are focused on the compound semiconductor sector, including the back-end diagnostic function in IC and photonic products.

"OmiStrain measures and visualises the 3-D differentiation in advanced IC packages," explains OMI chief executive Eoin Gilley. "We put the chip into a chuck, and then we take 3-D multiple images. Then these are compared with images from the heated chip. The device is aimed primarily at packaging companies. Its main advantage is cutting time-to-market of the packages." OMI Probe is also used inline for assessment of optics-related semiconductor materials such as gallium arsenide, silicon germanium, and gallium nitride. "For example," notes Gilley, "we can measure the bandgap in unpatterned HBT [heterodyne bipolar] transistors before they are assembled into cavity devices like VCSELs."

Next door to OMI is Firecomms, another spinout from the NMRC (which is a shareholder in the company). Firecomms pays for a member of staff to work at the NMRC, an example of the industrial-academic partnerships that typify many of the Irish photonics-related startups. Firecomms chief operating officer Thomas Moriarty says the company's target end-markets are automotive, datacoms, data capture, industrial automation, and infotainment. "Together, we estimate this to be a USD6-billion market, worldwide," he reports. "More specifically, we are targeting applications of polymer optical fibre. We believe that there will be a gradual shift toward POF applications in optical communications."

Firecomms' core technology platforms are semiconductor visible light sources: resonant cavity LEDs operating at 650 nm (red) and 520 nm (green) and VCSELs operating at 650 nm and modulated at up to 1 Gbit/sec, which Moriarty says is a unique capability. The company manufactures VCSELs that transmit in the visible spectrum. That is significant, because in the POF world it matches some other developments that are going on.

Previously, POF applications have been limited to about 25 Mbits/sec (using LEDs as sources) because of the limited range of frequencies available from LEDs. Moreover, step index POF has a performance limit of 100–200 Mbits/sec. Firecomms' resonant-cavity LED (RECLED) delivers up to 250 Mbits/sec, exceeding the carrying capability of today's POF. At least four companies, including Fuji Film and Samsung, have announced their intentions to manufacture G-I POF that will shift the bandwidth performance of the POF up to 1 Gbit/sec.

So is Firecomms' red VCSEL really a solution looking for a problem? "No," says Moriarty, "it's a solution waiting for POF to be able to support above-250-Mbit/sec transmissions; we haven't yet seen 1-Gbit POF. Another advantage is our red VCSEL's efficiency. It offers 0.5-mW output for 2–3-mA input, while a typical edge-emitter requires 8–15 mA. This capability is intrinsic to the VCSEL design; they require less current, their optics are easier, and they are more stable."

Plasma Ireland (PI), also based in Cork, has two distinct activities: optical illumination for machine vision and optical coatings designed for the UV sector and some telecoms applications. The company has been a going concern for five years and employs eight people with a EUR1–2-million turnover. Currently, 60% of its sales are in the United States. Current target markets are medical, machine vision, and lithography, such as in quality control in wafer development.

"PI, which may soon change its name to better reflect our diverse activities, also has its origins in the NMRC," offers co-founder and CEO Jules Braddell. "Most of our business is currently accounted for by a handful of customers. Typically, these are OEM companies in the U.S. and U.K., such as Universal Instruments, Davin Optronics, Snap On Tools, and Coherent. At the moment, we are not selling into the comms sector. However, we have been qualified with JDS Uniphase to supply a comms-related component, but unfortunately the bottom fell out of that market. We also have a product idea for a novel single-wavelength device based on coating technology rather than gratings."

Another Cork-based NMRC offshoot is Nanocomms, which is focused on applications of novel polymers to the communications sector. "We have a range of skills in fabrication and polymer characterisation," says the company's COO, Joe O'Keeffe. "The main reason we got into polymers was the flexibility of the design, especially for prototyping. We can produce prototypes in one to two weeks. We can integrate some of the key elements into a single replication process, such as V-groove stamping. The key advantages of using polymers, rather than silicon, are their flexibility and the speed of prototyping."

NanoComms has novel and innovative intellectual property for manufacturing techniques on novel polymer materials and waveguide-device technology for all polymer PLC production. Its "hot embossing micro replication technology" enables the replication of deep-level, high-aspect-ratio structures onto a variety of polymer substrates (polymer MEMS) with submicron accuracy and over large working areas. Features that can be replicated (in one process) include mirrors, lenses, and self-alignment fibre grooves. The replication technology can be used to realise complex and dense fine structures not possible using conventional silica on silicon technology. The production process is also significantly simpler, does not require the same capital investment in production facilities or clean rooms, and potentially has a low cost base.

The company is looking at producing polymer splitters from silicon masters. In developing the prototypes, it is possible to etch the silicon down to structures such as a multimode or singlemode structure, according to O'Keeffe.

One of Ireland's more established startups is Dublin-based Eblana Photonics, which specialises in the production of economical laser components intended for broadband communications. Recently, the company launched a high-performance, uncooled laser diode emitting at 1490-nm wavelength intended for optical-fibre-based fibre to the home and premises (FTTH/FTTP) applications. The so-called EP1490 diode joins the company's broadband-oriented product set, including 1550- and 1310-nm versions. The EP1490 operates uncooled at up to 85°C.

"Our product portfolio has been developed to allow a wider user group to enjoy the benefits of broadband," says Eblana's CEO, James O'Gorman. The addition was in direct response to an anticipated increase in the growth of broadband connectivity in cable, ADSL and FTTH. "We have met the challenge of providing a product portfolio that facilitates high-bit-rate integrated broadband services using multiple-wavelength channels," adds O'Gorman. "Our technology, based on advanced GaInAlAs [gallium indium aluminium arsenide] materials, allows a laser company for the first time to exploit established microelectronics manufacturing models to better deliver value and superior laser products where affordable high performance is key."

Earlier this year, Eblana purchased a laser-diode attach (LDA) automated assembly cell from Palomar Technologies for its integrated volume manufacturing line in making the lasers for broadband access. The LDA has completely automated the assembly of laser-diode components into the LD package with 5-µm accuracy.

Intune Technologies, also based in the Ireland's capital, opened for business about four years ago, and its key area of activity is testing and implementation of tunable-laser subsystems. "We started with the test and measurement applications, the measurement of tunability, then we moved onto systems test—we now have the fastest commercially switched tunable laser," contends Intune's CEO, John Dunne. "The fastest channel-to-channel switching available from the rest of the marketplace is 10 msec. Intune has 200-nsec switching commercially available, and we have demonstrated 50 nsec in our R&D work."

Intune's other key activity is in instrumentation, with an eye on the markets for optical sensing and testing in manufacturing. "For testing and calibrating lasers, we began with fast testing and we have moved onto fast switching," reports Dunne.

Intune has raised USD6 million to date; the last round of funding was in August 2002. "We have been generating business since December 2001," Dunne continues, "and there has been exponential growth. Now business is approximately one-third telecoms and two-thirds other. I think that telecoms is starting to come back. People are realising that they have to start investing in new designs and systems. In the past three months, we have seen positive growth. We have non-telecoms applications that are gas sensing, pressure and temperature sensing as well as metrology—optical measurement techniques."

Last June, Intune launched what it claims is the world's first high-speed swept source based on electronically tunable semiconductor lasers. The Altowave1100 is said to occupy one-tenth the size of comparable existing sources. It is already in field trials with some of Intune's key customers from a diverse range of growth areas, including networking, optical sensing, and manufacturing. Dunne says the new source "steps across 40 nm over 600 separate steps in 0.1 sec, stepping between each wavelength-locked channel in under 200-µsec."

On the southern outskirts of Dublin lies Dun Laoghaire, home to PXIT, which recently merged with another Irish company Tsunami Photonics, though PXIT has become the headline brand. Founded in 1998 by Darach Kelly and Brian McBride, PXIT now has offices in Germany and the United States. The company bases its approach on the PXI standard for modular instruments, providing open architecture, modular instrumentation solutions for its test and measurement customers. The company's PXI test system and module-level offerings are exported worldwide to optoelectronics manufacturers and test-system integrators.

PXI is a modular instrument standard based on CompactPCI. It combines industry-standard hardware and software with a rugged industrial form factor. PXI also adds timing and synchronisation features essential for a measurement system.

Tsunami, founded in 2001 by Ronan O'Dowd, electronic engineering professor at University College Dublin, has been a pioneer in the field of tunable lasers. At OFC in March 2002, the company launched its first product, CLose-Grid, a software suite for the test and rapid precision characterisation of active and passive components.

The merger mechanism was the acquisition of PXIT's PXI business by Tsunami. The merged entity will focus on providing test solutions for manufacturers of optical and optoelectronic components. It will combine PXI optical instrument modules, proprietary technology, and powerful analysis software to offer high-speed test solutions.

"PXIT can now bring comprehensive photonic test solutions to the market," acknowledges Kelly, now in his new role as the merged company's sales and marketing director. "Our modules leverage the PXI open standard to provide flexible building blocks for photonics test. With our additional skills in software creation and photonics, we also provide system-level solutions such as our CLose-Grid laser characterisation system."

Trinity College Dublin, which through its early astronomy luminaries, has been a significant player in optics since 1650. Trinity, or TCD, is home to Optronics Ireland, a research facility in the heart of this city centre university.

"The college," explains centre manager Vincent Weldon, "is about to publish its new five-year entrepreneurship plan that comes directly from the provost, Dr. John Hegarty, who was the former head of laser physics at the college. He was, in conjunction with Liam Kelly of University College Cork, instrumental in setting up Optronics Ireland." (John Donegan is the new head of laser physics at TCD).

The research projects at Optronics Ireland are diverse, but to give an idea of their applications, here are details of just a couple of the projects taking place in the basement. "One important research project is gas analysis using a tunable telecoms laser," offers Weldon. "This special capability has enabled us to collaborate with Intune and to win the European Space Agency water vapour analysis project. In this, we perform atmospheric analysis using a high-energy pulsed laser, locked by a diode laser at the water peak. Another interesting research project is looking at rare earth-doped fluoride fibres. We are currently developing a laser based on resonant transfer from thulium to praseodymium ions. We are investigating the use of these rare earth metals to see if they can give us lower phonon energies with the aim of improving the efficiency of ion transitions. A thulium-doped fluoride fibre laser emits blue and near-infrared light."

That rounds out this whirlwind tour of some of the key players on the Irish photonics scene.

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