The Dutch province of Noord-Brabant houses leading global players in photonics: Smart Photonics and Morphotonics.
Photonics is already in wide-spread use. Most are familiar with fiber-optic cables, which transport light signals from A to B. The technology is rapidly advancing, however, allowing for more and more applications to harness the power of light. Building on years of research conducted at Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE), Philips and TNO, the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant has become a worldwide focal point for the advancement of photonics.
Two companies that were founded as spin-offs from said research now set the pace in photonic development on the global stage. Smart Photonics focuses on producing super fast and incredibly energy-efficient chips, whereas Morphotonics is working on production technology to enable new display features like holographic imaging on smartphones or to improve the energy efficiency of solar panels.
Richard Visser, currently chief commercial officer, started Smart Photonics seven years ago. He’s convinced that photonic chips and the many applications for them will contribute to creating a better world. He sees clear opportunities in the telecom sector (the ability to increase data rates), healthcare (faster and more accurate measurements for diagnostic purposes), road safety (self-driving vehicles – the ability to recognize objects in front of and next to the vehicle) and much more.
“The way in which the semiconductor industry developed has opened the door for major Noord-Brabant corporations such as ASML and NXP. I believe that photonics will develop in a similar way,” says Visser. Just like the semiconductor industry, his company depends on a semiconductor substrate to manufacture chips. But unlike the semiconductor industry, which primarily uses silicon, Smart Photonics employs indium phosphide (InP). “The most important capability of InP chips is the ability to generate light on the chip itself.”
Integrated photonics technology is completely new, but draws on lasers used for telecommunications, Visser explains. “Photonics has been around in the telecom industry for more than forty years. However, producing complex photonic chips with a staggering amount of different components mounted on just a few square millimeters is completely new. All the more so because these chips can also be used in other markets such as aviation, healthcare, medical technology and automotive.”
Although the manufacturing process of photonic chips is similar to that of electronic chips, it requires specific skills and experience. “Until recently, making a chip based on this technology was extremely difficult. Production was only possible on a very small scale and required highly qualified technical people. During the past twenty years, Eindhoven University of Technology developed this technology to a point where it’s now comparable with electronics technology. TUE researchers invented a system based on standard building blocks, just like Lego. These building blocks can be combined to deliver new functionality. Customers use software to produce a chip design, send that design to us and we turn it into a chip that they can use in their products.”
Recently, Smart Photonics has grown significantly and appointed Johan Feenstra, former CEO of display company Liquavista, as chief executive officer. Visser: “We’re now in the phase of scaling up the technology and the manufacturing capabilities, to be able to support the continued market expansion. We feel that this new technology has enormous potential, not just for us as a chip manufacturer, but also for companies that will be able to improve existing applications, or even create new applications with the chips.”
High tech ecosystem
Morphotonics in Veldhoven was started by the Philips Optical Media & Technology (OM&T) team, which helped invent CD, DVD and Blu-ray discs as well as the means to manufacture them. Morphotonics builds machines that print nanostructures that improve the energy yield of solar panels and enable 3D imaging on your smartphone, among other things. Co-founder Onno Lint: “We’re definitely indebted to the technology with which Philips produced CDs and DVDs at the time: applying a nanostructure to the discs in a mass production environment.”
The company was founded in 2014, with a clear focus on roll-to-plate nanoimprint technology for large surfaces. Although the production technology can be traced back to the CD, it has been developed much further, both at the nano level and in terms of scale. These advancements enable new features in displays such as haptics, 3D, augmented reality or holographic imaging.
Lint: “Our OEM roll-to-plate production technology enables mass production of nano- or micropatterns at low cost and extreme optical precision for our customers.” Most companies that engage in this kind of work are located in Silicon Valley or China, but Morphotonics feels at home in Noord-Brabant. “Veldhoven has an excellent reputation internationally. Mainly due to ASML of course. Thanks to their activities, Veldhoven is now quite a familiar name worldwide. Furthermore, we’re supported by a highly educated and skilled network here, from which we hire talented people to strengthen our team.”
As Morphotonics combines nano precision with very large surfaces, its customers typically start by making a master plate with wafer steppers that ‘draw’ very thin lines on the plates in a micro- or nanostructure. “The difference is that where you would normally make about forty wafers or plates an hour with one smartphone-sized product, we’ve managed to increase the number of products per plate considerably. This boosts the rate of production beyond the equivalent of a thousand wafers per hour, which brings the price per product down to the level required for the consumer market.”
Morphotonics already sold its first machine, which is now used commercially in Asia to produce photonic display components for smartphones. No doubt the market for the company lies in Asia, Lint says. “China, of course, but also Taiwan and Korea, and – due to the impact of US trade sanctions against China – probably Vietnam in the near future. All the companies that produce optical products such as displays are located in those countries.” However, due to the high tech ecosystem in the Brainport area, Lint and his colleagues cannot imagine a better location for their company than Brabant.
This article was commissioned by the province of Noord-Brabant. For more stories about photonics innovation in Brabant, please check the Brabant Brand Box.