Century of the photon, and bridging gaps via startups

  • Last century was all about electrons; this century it’s about photons and ‘the crazy things we’re doing with light’
  • When it comes to startups, govts should focus on creating right kind of environment but shouldn’t be too regulatory

Century of the photon, and bridging gaps via startupsASK Professor Sir David Payne (pic) of Southampton University what the future holds, and he will point to the humble photon as the opening of an answer.
“The last century was all about the electrons, which saw the rise of personal computers, mobile phones and microwaves.

"This century, we’re going to see huge changes in the way we use light and there are some crazy things we’re thinking of doing,” he told Digital News Asia (DNA) during a recent visit to Malaysia.
The British professor of photonics, who is also director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton, was in Johor recently to conduct a guest lecture at the university’s Nusajaya Iskandar campus.
“Photonics is a platform technology which contributes enourmously to so many aspects of our lives, and it is a fascinating space to be in,” he added.

As one example, he shared that one great dream is the possibility of nuclear transmutation enabled by optical technology, which would enable the safe disposal of nuclear waste. Spent fuel would be irradiated by extremely fast particles, cause them to transmute and become harmless material.
“What’s stopping us from doing that? Well, we don’t have the accelerators that can do that stuff. The only one’s at CERN,” he said, pointing to CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the highest-energy particle collider ever made to date.
Unlocking the clever things one can do with fast particles holds much appeal, but currently the limitations in particle acceleration technology prohibits widespread capability.
“But if you’ve got to find a way to do it, it would be via the optical acceleration of the particles, enabling us control over them over a desk-sized space rather then how CERN currently does it,” he said, noting that to achieve higher speeds, the European continent would not be big enough to house the size of the LHC required.
The growing importance of photonics and the research into harnessing its potential forms were the driving force behind the recent launch of the Zepler Institute, a multidisciplinary research centre for electronics, photonics, nanoscience and quantum technologies in the United Kingdom.
“For years all the different disciplines grew in an uncoordinated way which happens in all universities. We realised that this was crazy, as areas of research grew and began to overlap, and decided to merge them all together under the same roof,” he explained.
Payne also pointed to new emerging technologies, created via a fusion of disciplines, such as silicon photonics that necessitate the closer collaboration of traditionally independent disciplines.
“I’m learning like a student all over again. Silicon photonics is centred on layering silicon chips with a layer of optics and leveraging the integrated effects to modulate and send light out through the Internet or whatever else you want to do with the light, and that’s a big push for us right now,” he said
He noted that with the Zepler Institute’s formation, it now puts researchers in a situation where “you have fundamental physicists who are doing stuff miles from market, working together with engineers and exploring actionable possibilities.”
Bridging the valley of death
The 'valley of death' is a longstanding issue whereby scientific research is not properly prepared for commercialisation and the resulting creations does not successfully make it to the mass market.
Payne is quick to point out that Southampton University, and the ORC in particular, has been proactive in bridging this gap. In his view, it is “very important” for research institutions to pay back to society what taxpayers have funded them to do.
“We get millions and millions in research and development grants, and we have to pay it back by creating something for the good of mankind,” he said.
“That’s the other thing we do at Southampton -- we’ve help start up 10 companies to date which are involved in the manufacture and design of industrial lasers which are then shipped across the world,” he said.
In his view, the startup phenomenon epitomised by the Silicon Valley model is one way to plug the gap between academia and industry, but the creation of an environment that allows startups to thrive is key.
“Governments should not be involved in startups; that’s a disaster, but neither should they be too regulatory as well. They should be focused on creating the right kind of environment and the Americans have demonstrated that,” he said.
“It is harder elsewhere, and I have certainly seen, especially around the boom time of 2000, that startups were struggling because their route to market wasn’t obvious. It’s all about the supply chain and not all countries have that in place because they are in the early stage of development,” he added.
When asked for his thoughts on how Malaysia is faring, Payne replied that he has not followed the startup scene here closely, but having been a regular visitor to the country for many years and having done some business as well, said that the country was very entrepreneurial.
Getting fibre right
Payne noted that the Malaysian Government has done a lot, especially in pushing for access to broadband Internet, which is “a beautiful sign” and in line with its role to create the environment which fosters technology creation.
“And to put it all together requires basic infrastructure to be in place, with the most important apart from transport being communications.
“I’ve watched over the years Malaysia laying out its fibre infrastructure. It’s still not quite world-class and you see the same in the United Kingdom as it is difficult to give universal access to your entire population,” he added.
Payne noted that the most expensive thing about providing broadband is “digging the hole.”
“You have to get the fibre backbone right first, as the heavy lifting of transferring all that data is done by fibre optics. Most people only see the bit that pops up off the ground and gets to your phone, but the wireless guys get all the publicity and sometimes make all these outrageous claims on speeds and yet, when did you ever see it?” he added.
According to Payne, it’s a question of how much and how far the underground fibre optic networks should run and what the standards should be -- as well as how the other technologies can contribute to hit the black spots, such as far-flung rural areas.
“I’ve seen some interesting proposals involving satellites and downlinks to aid on coverage. It’s also tricky in Malaysia because things are quite stretched out -- it’s easier to fill up Kuala Lumpur but as you get out further into the countryside and over mountainous terrain, it adds to the difficulty,” he said.
As a relatively greenfield investment in terms of fibre optic infrastructure, Malaysia doesn’t have too great a technology legacy to deal with and Payne believes the country is headed in the right direction.
He noted that every country wishes it could roll out fibre optic networks overnight, but it is expensive, with all sorts of regulatory issues to deal with.
“In most countries, you don’t and can’t just dig through someone’s backyard to lay down cables. But what’s good is that Malaysia as a nation has recognised the need and speaks about it all the time, which a great thing -- that’s progress,” he added.
In his view, the nation is doing more than the United Kingdom in that regard, not because the provisions are better but because the country has always seen technology as the future and is moving aggressively in that direction.
“Albeit, not as fast as people would like,” he admitted.
Up next: Inspiring the next generation of engineers and the answer to the question of light sabres.

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