Scottish optoelectronics builds on strong base

Aug. 1, 2000
Aided by collaborations between industry and academia and backed by government organizations, the Scottish optoelectronics industry is burgeoning.

Will Scottish devolution be good for the Scottish optoelectronics industry? It certainly looks that way. A healthy industry sector already, optoelectronics now can benefit from having a Scottish Parliament, established in May last year, to steer it toward the future. Scottish Enterprise, a Glasgow-sited government department, has involved the community in developing an optoelectronics strategy for Scotland, aiming to enlarge the industry. With local control over both industrial and academic funding, this strategy seems set for success.

The combined strength of its universities, with 16 departments specializing in this area, gives Scotland the largest concentration of optoelectronics research in the United Kingdom. These groups have developed an impressive number of world firsts, which are increasingly being commercially exploited in Scotland. The country has a history of specializing in optical manufacturing and now has massive manufacturing strength in electronics: 38% of European personal computers and 12% of Europe's semiconductors are produced in Scotland. Such related technology helps support a successful optoelectronics industry.

These developments have been tracked by the Scottish Optoelectronics Association (SOA), which is dedicated to developing the optoelectronics industry in Scotland. The 1999 SOA survey of the business showed a 15% increase in optoelectronics revenues in Scotland since 1998, on top of a 25% increase from 1997 to 1998. The SOA estimates current industry sales at £575 million ($861 million) and the number of people employed in the industry at 5000.

University talent aids industry

Collaborations between industry and academia flourish in Scotland. The universities certainly provide a source of technical staff; but, beyond that, research partnerships are a source of technical expertise that is readily tapped by Scottish industry. Scotland's Centers of Excellence are also involved in international collaboration.

In 1996, the Institute of Photonics (IOP) was established at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow) to help bridge the gap between academic research and industrial applications. IOP director Karen Ness is delighted with the way things are going. She comments, "The institute is based on a vision to undertake excellent strategic research with commercial relevance and to see that research applied to generate products and economic benefit. We are proud of the research base that we have built up over the past four years and are delighted to see an increasing range of opportunities for commercialization. The outlook for the future is exciting."

Along with the university, the other founding partners of the IOP were Scottish Enterprise, the former Glasgow Development Agency (now Scottish Enterprise Glasgow), and Pilkington Optronics, all based in Glasgow. The initial technical focus of the IOP was on all-solid-state light sourcesboth their development and their applications. This has now led to the inclusion of a major focus on compound semiconductor materials and especially devices, developing both emitters and modulators. The institute has just finished commissioning a gallium nitride foundry producing device-quality material.

The IOP has been successful in many areas. For example, a modelocked Cr:LiSAF laser has been used to detect tooth decay in its early treatable stages. Using two-photon absorption, the new technique monitors changes in laser-excited fluorescence that occur as decay attacks the enamel coating of otherwise-healthy teeth. Lesions in tooth enamel are difficult to spot at an early stage, as they are white. However, at this stage they can be healed, so there is considerable interest in detecting them.

Dental tissue contains a natural fluorophore that absorbs between 420 and 450 nm or that can absorb two 850-nm photons from the Cr:LiSAF laser. In healthy areas, the peak of the fluorescence occurs at 680 nm, but in diseased enamel it occurs at 550 nm, giving a measurable difference between healthy and diseased enamel. This work was done in conjunction with the Glasgow Dental Hospital.

Some of the biological imaging applications work has been advanced through a new initiative, the Centre for Biophotonics, which combines biomedical projects from the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. Funding of £1.2 million ($1.8 million) for the new center was received through the new UK Joint Infrastructure Fund; its new facilities will be ready by mid-September. The Strathclyde involvement includes the IOP and the departments of physiology and pharmacology. The IOP serves international as well as local industry and currently has projects with companies in Korea and the USA, as well as Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Another new venture based at the IOP is SPLT (providing Support for small and medium-sized enterprises in the uptake of Photonics and Laser Technology). The venture aims to link Scottish enterprises with relevant research going on in any Scottish university. It will do this by acting as a central point of contact, sending out mail, running industry-specific workshops, and producing case-study material. Part of an initiative for lowland Scotland, SPLT is supported by the European Regional Development Fund, Scottish Enterprise, four local enterprise companies, and the IOP.

Project manager Graeme Clark explains, "Scotland is now home to 16 separate university departments specializing in optoelectronics. SPLT acts as a facilitator, creating links between often disparate organizations."

Industrial partners worldwide

Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh has a long track record of successful industrial collaboration. The Industrial Photonics Group, including researchers from physics and mechanical engineering, has two main divisions. Optical instrumentation is headed by Julian Jones, while lasers and optical processing comes under Denis Hall. Both groups contain several world-class scientists, and between them they run collaborations with about 40 companies. Not all of these are Scottish based, and industrial partners include many of the major laser producers worldwide and well-known companies such as British Aerospace, BMW, Rolls Royce, and GEC.

In the same department, Andy Walker heads a group involved in a European collaboration investigating optical connections to silicon VLSI technology. The vision laboratory of the department of computing and electrical engineering has links with Scottish manufacturer Optos.

The University of St. Andrews has recently restated its position as a global center of excellence in laser-systems development with the announcement of a grant of £10.5 million ($15.8 million) over six yearsthe largest award in the university's history. The UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has awarded the Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration (IRC) grant to the School of Physics and Astronomy for a research project called Ultrafast Photonics for Datacomms Above Terabit Speeds. The project will be carried out in collaboration with five partner universities, including Glasgow and Heriot-Watt, and seven major industrial partners: Agilent (formerly Hewlett-Packard), Marconi, Nortel Networks, JDS-Uniphase, Kymata, Sharp, and Vitesse. The University of St. Andrews already has strong industrial links, especially in the area of compact solid-state lasers.

Alan Miller will be one of the IRC managers, and Wilson Sibbett will be the director. Sibbett says, "The IRC will be centered around the exploitation of specialist laser systems that have been pioneered and developed by laser physicists at St. Andrews. It will also build upon leading research in semiconductor and polymer materials being carried out in the schools of physics and chemistry."

In a different sort of collaboration, the Aberdeen-based Robert Gordon University (RGU) Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) has been working with the Building Research Establishment on new techniques in laser stone cleaning. It was commissioned by Historic Scotland to investigate laser cleaning of sandstone and granite, Scotland's most-common building stones. Danny McStay's team at RGU also has designed a hand-held scanner that detects corrosive algae and fungi on historic monuments. This was done as part of a European collaboration. Its proximity to the North Sea also leads RGU to collaborations in the marine area. In addition, the ORC works on biosensors and laser processing.

Spinouts on the increase

Scotland has seen many successful companies spin out of its universities. One initiative that has fostered spinouts is the Enterprise Fellowship program, managed by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in conjunction with Scottish Enterprise. Through this program, researchers from across Scotland are encouraged to take an idea and bring it to the stage at which a company can be formed. Apart from being given paid time out of research to do this, they are also given business training. So far, six fellowships have been awarded; four companies have been set up as a result. Spinouts look set to be a growth area, helped also by a new "Proof-of-Concept Fund" available through Scottish Enterprise.

Older, established examples include Edinburgh Instruments, Livingstone. In fact, Edinburgh Instruments Ltd. can be regarded as the blueprint for on-campus industry in the UK. Formed in 1971, it was the first private company at Britain's earliest University Research Park at Heriot-Watt. The company manufactures infrared carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide lasers, diode-pumped lasers, and computer-automated luminescence spectrometers. Edinburgh Sensors, a new sister company, manufactures a range of gas sensors based on nondispersive infrared-measurement techniques.

Innovative technology developed at the University of Edinburgh formed the basis of Vision Group plc's complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) imaging chip. Vision systems based on CMOS, as pioneered by Vision (Edinburgh), have advantages in cost, power consumption, and size compared to charge-coupled-device-based cameras. These advantages led to openings in markets such as video conferencing, security, medicine, and the automotive industry, as well as the toy industry. The company was listed on the London Stock Exchange in April 1995 and was acquired in 1999 by multinational STMicroelectronics (formerly SGS-Thomson Microelectronics), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Vision now functions as an operational business unit within STMicroelectronics.

Another more-recent acquisition of a Scottish university spinout is the purchase of Glasgow-based Microlase Optical Systems by Coherent. Earlier this year, Coherent acquired the remaining 75% interest in the company to add to its existing 25% stake; Microlase became Coherent Scotland. The solid-state-laser technology developed by the company is used to manufacture and test next-generation computer chips and treat eye and skin cancers. Microlase was set up by researchers from the University of Strathclyde in 1992, led by a team headed by Allister Ferguson, currently technical director of the IOP.

There are many newer spinouts, too. Compound Semiconductor Technologies was formed in Glasgow in 1999 as a device-fabrication foundry specializing in MBE and MOCVD growth (indium phosphide, gallium arsenide, and gallium nitride). The development came out of work started at the IOP in conjunction with Glasgow University, Scottish Enterprise, and Scottish Enterprise Glasgow.

Another new Glasgow-based company associated with the University of Strathclyde is Photonics Materials Ltd. (PML). Set up in 1998, its aim is to become the world leader in the growth of high-quality optical crystals. Apart from its technical abilities, it has an impressive set of backers, including Europe's leading technology investors 3i and US-based Milton Chang. It also has the support of Scottish Development Finance and Scottish Enterprise. The chairman of PML is Scottish optoelectronics entrepreneur David Simpsonperhaps best known as chairman of the successful English company Bookham Technology. Under the guidance of these experienced advisors, chief executive John Nicholls has already led the company into a position where it has won three prestigious awards for technological development.

In a totally different area, C3D (Glasgow) has been formed from the 3D-MATIC group (3D Multimedia Applications and Technology Integration Centre), centered in the department of computer science at the University of Glasgow. 3D-MATIC was sponsored by the UK government as one of four Faraday Partnerships, receiving an initial injection of £1 million ($1.4 million) from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (Swindon). It was set up to enable commercial ventures to gain access to advanced three-dimensional digitization technology and its applications, with a view of bringing them into the marketplace.

C3D has an exclusive license to the technology for human-body scanning in certain application areas. 3D-MATIC partnership director Paul Siebert predicts that more spinouts will be formed in the near future as more applications are found.

Defense industry remains strong

Scotland has a strong, established optoelectronics manufacturing base in defense applications. Although a successful transition to more broad-based markets is occurring, there is still a significant defense element to the economy.

Pilkington Optronicsformerly Barr and Stroud, now a member of the Thomson-CSF Optrosys Business Group based in Glasgowretains a leading position in military optics, including laser rangefinders and thermal-imaging systems. It has recently won a major new contract to supply the so-called optronic masts for the three Astute Class submarines currently being built for the Royal Navy.

The optronic mast represents a significant breakthrough in the design of submarine above-water sensors. Unlike conventional periscopes, which have a direct visual path to the outside world, the optronic mast uses an electronic link to bring the view above water to monitor screens below. In addition to high-resolution color and low-light cameras, the mast incorporates a thermal-imaging sensor and provides day and night capability. It also has a "quick look around" facility, allowing a scan around the full horizon in just a few seconds. The mast can then be lowered and the retained scan image examined and analyzed afterward, thereby minimizing the risk of detection.

BAE Systems was formed in November 1999 from the merger of Marconi Electronic Systems and British Aerospace. Two former GEC Marconi sites dealing with optics and optoelectronics are in Edinburgh. The Avionic Systems Division designs and manufactures head-up displays, head-down displays, and helmet-mounted displays for civil and military aircraft. It also produces night-vision goggles, video cameras and recorders, digital maps, mission computers, and display processors. The IR Business Group produces a wide range of military electro-optic systems from ring-laser gyroscopes to directed infrared countermeasures.

Companies tackle diverse applications

One of the hottest companies in Scotland is Kymata, Livingston. The company was founded in 1998, and at the end of 1999 Kymata's silica-on-silicon planar fabrication line went live and the company became the UK's first independent planar silica-on-silicon integrated-circuit manufacturer. The new facility features 6-in.-wafer production, providing in-depth capacity to satisfy spiraling demand.

The company has launched the first devices in its new solid-state range for dense wavelength-division multiplexing applications, a 16-channel arrayed-waveguide grating, and a variable optic attenuator. Available in both chip and packaged forms, the devices offer benefits compared with the use of discrete optical components and are expected to establish a new level of compactness. So far, Kymata has attracted $89 million in funding from both US and European sources and has benefited from links to both the University of Glasgow and the University of Southampton Optoelectronic Research Centre in England.

Lifor, based in Gladsmuir, has designed a laser-based lighting system to mark emergency escape routes in the event of fires on offshore oil and gas installations. TrailLight illuminates up to 130 m of side-emitting fiberoptic cable, which gives off a green light that can be seen in dense smoke. The system is battery-powered and also works underwater. It can provide more than three hours of emergency lighting. Applications include use on oil rigs and shipping, as well as underwater marking of inspection routes and diver return paths. Military applications include lighting emergency runways and landing zones and nighttime-parachute-zone marking. A portable version will soon be available, suitable for use by emergency services.

The US company Optical Coating Laboratory Inc. (OCLI; Santa Rosa, CA) established a facility in Hillend in 1966 that currently employs 120 people. It specializes in thin-film-coating-based products for the instrumentation and specialty-lighting markets. Particular strengths are the ability to manufacture high-precision infrared bandpass filters for gas-sensing applications and the capability to provide coated alkali halide optics to manufacturers of FTIR spectrophotometers. OCLI also has expertise in the high-volume production of dichroic filters supplied to many of the world's leading manufacturers of intelligent lighting systems. Earlier this year, the company became a wholly owned subsidiary of JDS Uniphase Corp. (Napean, Ont., Canada, and San Jose, CA). OCLI has links with most major Scottish universities.

Last year, Dunfermline-based Optos received US Food and Drug Administration approval for its new diagnostic system for eye disease that produces a single, high-resolution color picture of almost the entire retina. The Panoramic 200 can take an image of the retina in just 0.25 s without the need for pupil dilation, contact with the cornea, or scleral depression, and without stressful and potentially harmful levels of illumination. The continuing rise in the incidence of certain diseases with vision-threatening implications, has led to an increasing market for the Panoramic 200.

The system is a scanning-laser-based device incorporating both a red and a green laser, each of which gives information about different structures in the eye. The imaging system is key to getting the high-resolution images of the entire retina at low light levels and without pupil dilation. Optos has benefited from links with the Vision Laboratory at Heriot-Watt University and is fostering links with other Scottish universities.

Optos was formed in 1995 with the help of private investors and now employs 40 full-time staff. It was recently recognized as one of the most-innovative users of e-commerce in Scotland; the company monitors the use of each installed system and generates its billing from this information. Further developments include the launch of new product applications covering laser therapy, photodynamic therapy, autodiagnostic analysis, and the extension of remote archiving and other image-management services.

Another company that has profited from close university links is MicroPix Technologies (Dalgety Bay near Edinburgh), currently working closely with the University of Edinburgh on microelectronics-device fabrication and packaging. The company's key enabling technology is a digital display on chip, and it is preparing itself for rapid growth within the next 12 months as it moves toward volume production of microdisplays. Says managing director David Macintosh, "Our microdisplays will transform both the performance and the utility of compact portable data-projection displays, including wearable systems for both professional and for consumer applications."

Buoyed by a history of success, the Scottish optoelectronics community is currently developing its strategy and action plan for the next five years, which it hopes will allow it to achieve its vision of exceeding global growth rates. The plan calls for close cooperation between the Scottish Enterprise network, the universities, and industry so that Scotland's ideas can be exploited by Scotland's industry. Alastair Wilson, head of the Optoelectronics Team at Scottish Enterprise has overseen growth so far. He comments, "Once an action plan is agreed upon, it is up to all of the participants in Scotland's optoelectronics cluster to make that vision a reality."

About the Author

Bridget Marx | Contributing Editor, UK

Bridget Marx was Contributing Editor, UK for Laser Focus World.

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