Design center investment looks to further commercialization of photonics in space

June 3, 2022
Alter Technology announces a six-million Euro investment in photonics at the University of Strathclyde.

In mid-April, Alter Technology announced its decision to open a photonics design center in Glasgow at the University of Strathclyde. The driver? Accelerating the commercialization of photonics within two key growth marketsquantum and space. Alter is planning on making a significant investment over the next five years to fund R&D efforts focused on “quantum enabled positioning, navigation and timing systems, and photonic-based satellite optical communications.”

According to the release announcing the investment, the location for the design center is strategic in that the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics and Strathclyde’s Institute of Photonicskey partners for Alter Technologyare based within the same building, with the physics department teams nearby.

Laser Focus World had the opportunity to connect with Una Marvet, head of Alter’s design center, to dig deeper into the commitment.

LFW: What do you see as the barriers to commercialization?

Marvet: The main barriers to commercialization are different for the two markets we’re targetingsatellite communication (Sat Comms) and quantum position, navigation, and timing (PNT).

The main barrier for optical transceivers in Sat Comms arises from the relative immaturity of photonics technology in space harsh-environment applications. One of the key challenges is taking optical transceiver technology, which is widely used in terrestrial datacenter applications, and making it compatible with the SWAP and harsh environment and radiation requirements for space.

For quantum, a key barrier is to take the technology from research and university lab setups and package it into a reduced SWAP-C (size, weight, power, and cost) module. Traditional laser and quantum systems are bulky, sensitive to alignment, and costly. By combining volume semiconductor- and telecoms-style packaging and design techniques to produce laser modules for quantum technologies, we believe that we can offer a route to cost-effective real-world quantum applications.

The notable difference between quantum and space communications markets is of course the big question mark over exactly how quantum technologies will be realized and what their effect will be. There’s a general feeling that there will be existential changes, but the picture of how the technology will be implemented and what the world will look like afterwards has yet to emerge. We’re looking forward to being part of that.

LFW: How specifically will this center help address/alleviate the barriers?

Marvet: In order to solve these big challenges, we need multiple disciplines and skills from the telecoms, space, laser, semiconductor, and quantum industries to work closely together under the same roof and ecosystem. Bringing together the semiconductor and photonic manufacturing expertise and space application knowledge of Alter Technology with the laser and quantum expertise of Fraunhofer CAP and the University of Strathclyde will allow a completely new approach to how laser technology is used in space and quantum applications.  

The mega trends related to resilient communications/increasing demand for bandwidth enabled by Sat Comms and the growing recognition of the game-changing potential of quantum technologies has undoubtedly provided momentum for this investment and the positive market outlook we see.

LFW: What would you say are the keys to success for the center?

Marvet: The key success for the center is to be the number-one or number-two supplier for optical transceivers into the harsh environment market and narrow linewidth laser modules for the quantum technology market.

This is an exciting time for both quantum and space photonics, and we’re grateful to TÜV Nord for the opportunity to take advantage of Alter’s existing capability and expertise and build on it to contribute fully to both markets.

About the Author

Peter Fretty | Market Leader/Group Editorial Director, Laser & Military

Peter Fretty began his role as the Market Leader, Laser & Military in June 2023; the group encompasses the Laser Focus World, Military & Aerospace Electronics, and Vision Systems Design brands. He also serves as Group Editorial Director, Laser & Military (effective spring 2023) and served as Editor in Chief of Laser Focus World since October 2021. Prior to that, he was Technology Editor for IndustryWeek for two years.

As a highly experienced journalist, he has regularly covered advances in manufacturing, information technology, and software. He has written thousands of feature articles, cover stories, and white papers for an assortment of trade journals, business publications, and consumer magazines.

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