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Fundamental research for countless photonics applications

15 March 2017

The fact that scientist Jaime Gómez Rivas, group leader at the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Research (DIFFER) and professor at the Technical University of Eindhoven (Tu/e), recently received one of the 34 coveted Vici Grants from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, was not only a much deserved recognition for his pioneering research on photonics, the interaction between light (photons) and electrons (electronics). It was also welcome promotion for Brainport as the global leader in the area of photonics technology. The 1.5 million euro, which is part of the Vici Grant, is a valuable (extra) contribution to the 600 million euro* the region has requested from the new government. The investment is intended for the continued development and application of this innovative, energy-efficient technology.

Whilst Brainport especially points out the future advantages of (investments in) photonics technology (such as seven thousand intended new jobs and sustainable data storage), Gómez Rivas rather focuses on the foundation: “Every new technology starts with extensive fundamental research. That is the essential first step in the chain that is so strongly represented here in the Brainport region. But fundamental research needs time and thanks to the Vici Grant I am able to take that time.” He will dedicate at least five years of his time to ‘the creation of a hybrid state of light and matter which will improve the transport of excitons (bound states of electrons and electron holes) in materials’, as explained by DIFFER. In other words, as Gómez Rivas tries to explain in short: “Materials have fixed properties, which affect the efficiency and transport of energy. That interaction between matter and light is the foundation for new possible applications of photonics technology. The coming years we will research how we can get a better understanding of that foundation, so that we can finally use it to improve the properties of materials.”

That investment in fundamental research offers countless possibilities according to Gómez Rivas. “Photonics is not only a promising technology for data storage. The improvement of charge transport in materials is also very important for applications in for example solar cells, LEDs, lasers and light sensors. But I also see possibilities for cleaner fuels, by using light to divide water into nitrogen and oxygen.” However, that has yet to be achieved. Gómez does expect the outcome of his research to gain momentum, thanks to the valuable eco system within Brainport. “After five years, we will discuss the knowledge gained from our fundamental research with the industry; what do relevant companies need in respect of innovation, what improvements are needed? Being so close to so many companies will certainly be an advantage. We can easily link all expertise and skills. The final photonics applications resulting from our research will undoubtedly develop much faster, simply because the industry is developing much faster.”

Moreover, this high tech region offers opportunities for smart cooperation between the scientists of DIFFER and the TU/e and companies such as Philips Lighting (already started), or with research institutes such as Solliance and TNO at a later stage. Gómez Rivas talks about an important chain in which all links are equally indispensable: “Without applications from the industry, applied research is useless. However, the sustainability of the region depends just as much on fundamental research, because that is the breeding ground for innovation and with that the existence of businesses. Every new technology takes years of research. Therefore, it is so important that the whole chain is represented in Brainport and that all links in that chain are stimulated and transparent. If one of the links disappears or is not open to the world anymore, the whole eco system will eventually fall apart.”

It becomes evident that such a well-functioning, transparent and complete chain is capable of great achievements, when Gómez Rivas answers what the results of successful photonic applications ultimately may be: “Green cities without CO2 emission, with electric or solar powered cars, smart sensors, more powerful solar energy and energy efficient IT. But that is still only a utopian dream”, he quickly adds. A beautiful dream, which still needs to be developed. Gómez Rivas and his team will lay the foundations in the next five years. After that, it is up to the other partners in the chain to use the best tools to further develop those foundations.

* The 600 million euros for photonics are partly intended for further scientific research and development of this technique (250 million). The national funds will also be spent on a factory for the manufacturing of photonic chips (200 million euros). Furthermore, 100 million is needed to support start-ups that use the chips to develop applications and products. 50 Million euros is intended for the building of a new laboratory.