Photonics is one of the most promising and exciting fields currently being developed. Photonics is to light what electronics is to electricity. Or as the eminent French Scientist Pierre Aigrain described it: "Photonics is the science of the harnessing of light. Photonics encompasses the generation of light, the detection of light, the management of light through guidance, manipulation, and amplification, and, most importantly, its utilisation for the benefit of mankind."
The subject was born with the invention of the laser in 1960, which together with the development of optical fibres for communications has led to high capacity telecommunications and is the actual backbone of the internet. Photonics holds a huge potential not only for new and even better forms of communications and entertainment but also in many other applications, including manufacturing, medicine, displays, and a whole range of sensors for chemicals, biological materials and in the environment. Ultimately, photonics even promises to completely replace microelectronics as the technology that computers use to 'think', leading to a huge increase in performance.
Today, some 200,000 people are employed directly in the photonics industry in Europe, and two million other jobs depend on it. The global market for products enabled by photonics is already 150bn per annum and increasing. In Germany alone, there are some 1,000 optics and photonics SMEs employing 36,000 people a figure expected to grow by more than 40% by the year 2010. But a crucial point is that apart from its economics, photonics is also a vital strategic technology, in which Europe must maintain its expertise and know-how so as to avoid being left behind in a very quickly changing market. It's not enough to be in the photonics race you've got to be the best.
To better address these challenges, and particularly to help develop a common European approach to photonics research and development, Europe's photonics community founded the Photonics21 technology platform in December 2005.
With some 700 members in 35 countries (and counting), this industry-led initiative has mobilised the European photonics research actors into a real community, addressing issues of common interest and developing a joint vision. Its first Strategic Research Agenda, delivered in April 2006, was a major input to the development and review of future EU funded research on photonics.
Recognising its importance and huge potential, photonics has been given a prominent position in the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) part of the EU's 7th Framework Programme for research (FP7). Some 90m have been allocated to fund the basic photonics technologies during 2007-2008 alone, and it is expected that this will increase over the lifetime of the programme. This is in addition to the significant research programmes going on in many European countries such as Germany, which is allocating some 100m to research on Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLED), or the UK's Technology Programme, which allocated over £55m to photonics related R&D during
As well as increasing the level of funding, there was a clear need to establish a core team within the Commission dedicated to photonics in FP7. This was not only because of the recognised growing technological and economic importance of the domain and the increased amount of resources, both human and in terms of funding devoted to it, but also in response to the need for a single contact point for the photonics industry and research community. The new Photonics unit will also provide a link to related areas of the Commission. This includes research on applications using photonics such as in the automotive, biomedical, communications, security and displays areas of the ICT programme but also elsewhere, for example, in the Nanosciences, Nanotechnologies, Materials and new Production Technologies programme, and photonics-related research for SMEs.
The person who the Commission has chosen to head the Photonics unit is Thierry Van der Pyl. Thierry has an extensive experience in the European Commission. Previously, he has headed the units for "High Performance Computing", "Microelectronics", "Trust and Confidence" and more recently the "Future and Emerging Technologies" unit.
"We believe we have the components for success: a first-rate existing knowledge base in the research community; a world-class industry which is getting organised; increased national and European research funding; and outstanding co-operation with industry through the Photonics21 technology platform. With these, we can help to ensure a strong, successful and globally competitive European photonics industry, based on excellent and responsive research, for the benefit and wellbeing of everyone. I am convinced that Photonics will be the technology of the 21st century, and this is an area where the efforts of the Commission can make a real difference" Thierry says.