Leveraging decades of photonics research investment

Photonics is a key enabling capability which will underpin the future security, prosperity, and social cohesion of Australia.

Over the past 40 years, Australia has developed a strong core research capability in photonics funded primarily through the Australian Research Council, while much of the underpinning micro and nano-fabrication equipment critical to the development of photonic devices and sensors has been provided through the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF).

This core capability supports, both directly and indirectly, researchers who depend on photonics as an enabling technology.

For example, in quantum technologies, individual photons have become key for various applications including quantum communication, quantum computing, quantum metrology, biology and experiments probing the foundations of quantum physics. Without photonics, much of this quantum world would be inaccessible to us.

Photonics encompasses the technologies, devices, products, and processes that generate, control, transmit, and detect light.

It is a key ‘technological enabler’ which fuels the world’s economic engine, with the value of photonics-enabled products and services estimated at around $15 trillion annually, roughly 10 per cent of global GDP.

Photonics is vital to the products and services used daily by virtually everyone in Australia. Displays are the heart of all digital entertainment, from televisions to smart phones and tablets, whilst we capture, record, and view the world through optical lenses.

While photonics has an impact on almost every facet of modern life, from healthcare and energy generation to communications, manufacturing, and agriculture, much of its impact is hidden from view and is hence often referred to as a “hidden economic engine”.

The importance of photonics to a developed economy is emphasised by the recent estimate that by 2035 more than 60 per cent of the UK economy will directly depend on photonics to remain competitive.

Looking forward, solutions to the greatest challenges of the 21st century, from global warming to digital inclusivity, will depend on photonics.

Of the seven critical technologies recently identified by the federal government, all are supported either directly (for example quantum technologies and advanced information and communication technologies) or indirectly (biotechnologies, AI technologies) by photonics. 

An example in the Defence space is the Jericho Smart Sensing Laboratory (JSSL), which is a collaboration between The University of Sydney Nano Institute and the Royal Australian Air Force.

The JSSL is developing advanced sensing capability to protect Australia from technologically sophisticated and rapidly changing threats by developing and delivering sensors that can assess physical, chemical, acoustic, and electromagnetic environments.

The mechanisms for some of these sensors are based on photonic microchips where the massive reduction in size, weight, and power that photonics provides is a gamechanger, allowing them to be easily fitted onto aircraft, satellites, and vehicles.

Whilst the importance of a research capability in photonics cannot be overstated, the ability to translate research outcomes into manufactured products is a critical part of the photonics value chain.

A recent survey has shown that the photonics sector is a vibrant and rapidly growing part of the manufacturing sector here, as it is in countries which have economies dominated by manufacturing.

The Australian photonics-based sector accounts for about $4.3 billion of economic activity, similar in size to Australian dairy production, and the mining and construction equipment sector. It employs nearly 10,000 people in 465 companies.

This sector not only supplies domestic requirements but contains significant global exporters.

For example, Finisar Australia, based in Sydney, is the world’s largest manufacturer of Wavelength Selective Switches, a key subsystem for optical fibre communication networks. Almost its entire production is exported, with export revenues of more than $1 billion over the past decade.

However, photonics is ‘deep tech’ and hence the time from discovery or invention to success in the market is typically seven to ten years, at the extreme upper limit of the timeline on which venture capital firms are generally interested in investing.

The ability to de-risk any idea, from both a technology maturation and market perspective is critical to increasing the rate of commercialisation of locally developed and manufactured, but globally applicable, photonic technologies.

The recent introduction of the ANFF’s pre-seed fund, that uses the ANFF’s financial and human resources to provide early seed money and the know-how to validate the commercial opportunity around technology developed within the ANFF, provides a model that can be expanded to enhance the local industry and capability.

To summarise, Australia has a strong photonics research base and a growing manufacturing sector, developed over the past 40 years.

As photonics, and photonics-enabled products and services become increasingly pervasive throughout the economy, this capability must continue to increase to give Australia a level of security of supply and influence over this technology and how it is applied.

To do otherwise will condemn Australia to buying in essential photonic systems, making us dependent on others for innovation and supply in this key technological enabler. 

Examples of how photonics, as the “hidden economic engine” underpins our modern economy

Semiconductor Manufacturing: Every single integrated circuit manufactured in the past 60 years uses photonics to photolithographically generate the pattern of transistors in the silicon wafer. The printed circuit boards on which electronics systems are assembled also rely on photolithography and laser machining.

The Internet: Our society is dependent on the high-speed connectivity provided by the internet. Photonics, in the form of optical fibre communications, provides the backbone of the internet, providing the ultra-high bandwidth (Tbit/sec and above) communication links that link countries, continents, our homes, and workplaces.

Defence: Defence relies on photonics in many aspects of its technology portfolio, including threat detection and monitoring (eg submarine detection using hydrophones, night vision) and navigation and guidance for modern ‘smart’ munitions. 

Manufacturing: Lasers are becoming ubiquitous in manufacturing, from automotive to food, for cutting, welding, surface treatment and marking, whilst high precision, photonics-based metrology supports the precision assembly processes required by modern manufacturing techniques.

Dr Simon Poole AO is an engineer, scientist and entrepreneur with 40 years’ experience in the Photonics sector across academia, research, and industry. He has been involved in startups in both academia and industry for the majority of this time and is renowned both for his contribution to the technology of photonics as well as the companies he has founded Dr Poole was a member of the team that invented the Erbium-Doped Fibre Amplifier (EDFA) at Southampton University, and on moving to Australia in 1988, founded the Optical Fibre Technology Centre at the University of Sydney and subsequently, the Australian Photonics Cooperative Research Centre.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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