Challenges in training in modern optical technology

modern optical technology
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Toralf Scharf, Senior Scientist/Faculty Member at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, charts today’s challenges in training in modern optical technology

Today, all-optical designs are often perceived following different approaches, namely geometrical optics, physical optics and nano-photonics. Traditionally these approaches are linked to the different lengths-scale that are important to the system. Starting from the entire system that is macroscopic and uses geometrical optics, over the miniaturised unit that is based on micro-optics and needs physical optics design, down to the active nano-photonics entity that allows steering light truly at the nano-scale but which requires to be designed with rigorous methods that provide full-wave solutions to the governing Maxwell’s equations. A design for the manufacture of next-generation optical applications necessarily requires bridging the gap between the different length scales and to consider the design at a holistic level.

Our project “Noloss: Lossless photon management – Optical design for manufacture at different length scales” is tailored to educate the future generation of optical engineers to successfully cope with this challenge. So how do we prepare and train future engineers for the design challenges and opportunities provided by modern optics technology? In a situation where university research is often decoupled from high technology fabrication, this becomes a challenging task. The necessary education can only be based on real-world scenarios together with industry and a multitude of projects running in parallel to achieve a “critical mass” of scientific subjects and allow a cross-disciplinary exchange.

In our work, supported by the European Union’s (EU’s) Horizon 2020 initiative we, therefore, brought together key players of optical technology in Europe and proposed a training programme where themes and problems are provided by industry. The research-oriented partners from academy add necessary scientific visions on different subjects, such as small-scale optical systems, nano-photonics and micro-optics. Usually, university training happens in single institutions, which is very limiting when it comes to gathering experience about applications. In our case, the future PhDs are working more than half of their time in industry and learn research and technology transfer on the job.

In terms of our approach, we defined these three objectives that focused on training:

Provide an integral educational platform for optical specialists that allow the education of engineers in an interdisciplinary environment and to operate outside their field of specialisation.

Provide access to a doctoral (PhD) education programme that is based on state-of-the-art product development techniques and leading technology platforms available in Europe.

Unite the education in different optical disciplines from nano-photonics and micro-optics to optical systems providing interdisciplinary product development based on optical technologies.

The research objectives are based on high-level research activities in the industry and focus on the problems that are identified as the main gaps and bottlenecks for optical system developments and commercialisation when miniaturisation is considered. We identified as the main research goal of our proposal:

Apply innovative micro- and nano-optics technology to important real-world industrial applications, such as energy conversion (solar cells), imaging, sensing, or lighting.

But what is different in our research work compared to purely academic research? In our case of research work, ample attention is given to important practical aspects that are normally left out of consideration, such as the one very important aspect: the limitations set by manufacturability.

In more detail, three research objectives are considered for each of the activities:

Help industry to solve the most eminent design problems related to nano-micro-optical systems, such as optical multi-scale simulation.

Develop optical system design strategies for the future of the optical industry that are close to manufacturing processes and assure compatibility of integration into macroscopic systems.

Develop and transfer the latest optical design techniques out of the laboratory to be used by industry.

Such challenges include lossless photon management, modelling at the system, components and feature level and the link between design and technology. All this need to consider manufacturability of the invented structures and concepts.

Lossless photon management is the key in optical system design and applications today. It basically suggests that all photons are steered in a way that they fully contribute to the functioning of the system. All losses that are created by either absorption of light or scattering into undesired channels should be avoided. Two main impact areas of lossless photon management can be identified that are of major concern to our future society: energy saving and enabling functionality.

Energy saving is introduced on different levels for optical technologies and applications. It is not only important to fabricate highly efficient elements, but one needs to consider the fabrication process of the elements and systems itself. An effective starting point is the use of state-of-the-art technologies but to fully explore its potential one has to optimise the design for the manufacture. Such a strategy was successfully applied in the semiconductor industry and will be the key to success for future optical technologies. This requires linking in a highly integrated manner the design of individual optical components and entire optical systems with the manufacturing processes required.

Enabling functionality is a second important field for optical systems that can be reduced to a single characteristic: contrast. An optical system will always be judged by its ability to measure signals against a background. If all photons contribute to the signal, the background can be neglected and no photon is lost. Consequently, the signal-to-noise ratio becomes maximum. In miniaturised systems, such argumentation is particularly important, because miniaturisation is often used as a synonym for nomadic and battery-powered devices. Efficiency and lossless photon management translate then directly into new applications, better performance and longer lifetime. To enable optical functionality with maximum efficiency, an integral design approach is needed that allows establishing photon budgets from the source (including energy conversions effects) to the detector. Again, the aspect of fabrication limitations within the design is the most important factor for success.

At the core, are optical simulation models developed and used in the academic research and the one used for optical designs in industry. Up to now, only the academic partners apply an integrated approach to include micro- and nano-photonics in their simulations. Together with the industrial partners, small-scale research projects are launched to promote the academic developments in optical design and simulation over different length scales. The industry will use the know-how to consolidate their expertise, expand their businesses and occupy new fields of activities. For each research subject, may it be nano-photonics, micro-optics or system engineering, a communication channel can be provided to access particular knowledge and/or stimulate collaborations.

As an outcome, highly trained optical engineers will be able to operate in different worlds after completing their PhD because they will have experience in both academia and industry. They can easily integrate into different environments, which is the key to today’s dynamic workplaces. Packed with this rich experience, students have a much better starting condition to pursue their career path as future leaders in the optical industry.

Toralf Scharf focuses his research activities at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne on interdisciplinary subjects, bringing micro-system, material technology and optics together. With a background in surface physics (MSc), physical chemistry (PhD) and a profound experience in optics, he is familiar with all necessary aspects of technology development and application and can communicate with different scientific communities. In over 20 years of project execution with industry and governmental organisations, he has accumulated the right experience to lead and execute the project at different levels.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 675745.


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Senior Scientist/Faculty Member
École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)
Phone: +41 21 695 4286
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