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When the photonics research group saw the light of day some 25 years ago, the field was still relatively unknown and there was little idea of its enormous potential. Today photonics applications are an integral part of every possible aspect of our daily lives, yet at the same time there is still so much to be achieved.
Text: Filip Michiels / Photo: Saskia Vanderstichele
Chances are the mention of photonics doesn’t ring a bell with most people. But the odds that those same people have not yet been in contact with one of the many applications of photonics are pretty small. From optical fibres in large-scale telecommunications networks to a plethora of sensors that measure pressure variations and even the most diverse forms of quality control in the food industry, its applications in everyday life are countless. If you want to test whether that “authentic Tuscan” olive oil is in fact so authentic - and not a mixture of a variety of cheaper oils - photonics can offer a definitive answer. The same holds for the exact composition of certain beers or the quality of honey. “Photonics - the science that studies the interaction between light and matter - is a multidisciplinary field by definition,” says Wendy Meulebroeck, a professor and post-doctoral researcher of 20 years at B-PHOT, the VUB research group that is considered one of the absolute pioneers with regards to photonics research and development in Belgium. “The use of light in engineering science is always growing, and in that sense it shouldn’t come as a surprise that photonics is considered one of the key enabling technologies of the 21st century. It truly is a technology that has a broad variety of applications and in part because of that it inherently has a large potential in terms of economic growth and job creation.”
Photonics is derived from the term ‘photon’ - light particle - and is a relatively young discipline, in comparison to electronics, for example. “When we speak of light technology everyone instantly thinks of lasers or cutting-edge lighting, but that’s not where the greatest innovative strengths lie today. Only about twenty years ago we also started focusing on very concrete applications here, based on our own preparatory fundamental research,” Meulebroeck explains.
“Those applications now seem to be everywhere: light is used as an information and energy carrier in the IT sector, and it is gaining importance in sensor technologies and in the medical sector. Our smartphones are filled to the brim with photonics applications, and the same is true of contemporary television screens. In that light it is not a coincidence that photonics have been declared one of the six key enabling technologies both at a European and Flemish level. The many application possibilities have also helped open funding doors, for both fundamental and applied research focused on corporate solutions. Already fifteen to twenty years ago the first partnerships with industrial partners, e.g. with companies like Barco, were born. In the meantime we started collaborating intensely with other research groups, which broadened the application potential even more.
The relative weight of the photonics research group at VUB has grown exponentially as a result over the past few years. Today about 70 researchers work there and Meulebroeck is adamant this positions the VUB research group in the European top five. “When I started working here in 1998, B-PHOT only had a staff of twenty and the focus was heavily on fundamental research. Today you can truly speak of innovation-driven research and a widespread bilateral collaboration with industry. Corporations from all over the world come to us with specific research questions, but at the same time our fundamental research leads to specific applications for those corporations ever more often.”
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Meulebroeck’s own research mainly centers on the field of optical spectroscopy, a technique that in turn has applications in a number of varied subdomains, including food research and all kinds of medical applications. “In the simplest terms, we fire lightwaves at particular material to learn more about its chemical composition. Through interaction with that material, which absorbs the light less or more, the original characteristics of the light signal also change. This gives us relevant information about the composition of the material or liquid.” The application areas of this research are extremely wide. Photonics now perfectly enables us to quickly and efficiently foodstuffs for the presence of carcinogenic substances, but also helps with the dating of antique glassware. “At VUB we are currently studying the unique float glass collection of the Cinquantenaire museum,” says Meulebroeck.
“We’ve also received a request to examine the glass composition of two coloured stainedglass windows of the Ter Duinen Museum in Koksijde. That project showed us the windows do not date back to the 14th century - as was previously assumed - but rather to the 19th century. When a museum is about to restore historic pieces, it is obviously very important to estimate ahead of time whether the pieces in question truly have historic value or not.”
How do you - in challenging financial times - find the right balance between fundamental research on the one hand and the most interesting and promising applied research areas on the other hand? “I think the strength of B-PHOT lies exactly in that combination of the two,” Meulebroeck says. “Based on our expertise here at VUB we have selected seven major themes over the past few years. In a way that apparent contradiction between fundamental and applied research is in fact incorrect. Fundamental research will in reality often lead to concrete applications for industry. It really all boils down to making the right strategic choices. Because of our pioneer’s role in photonics here, we have established a very good relationship with the industry. And by applying for major European projects we have obviously gotten a pretty good taste for the needs of the market. Yet it’s also true that fundamental research often only leads to concrete marketable applications some ten or twenty years later, and it is impossible to adequately predict success ahead of time. This doesn’t mean that important financing channels, such as the European Horizon 2020 framework, focus more and more on cooperation with the corporate world,” she explains.
“Where that focus initially lay on the telecommunications sector, now we can truly speak of a gigantic widening of the practical applications of photonics, and the end is not yet in sight. We are currently partners with Philips in a European research project to improve the speed and efficacy of the treatment of cancer by integrating light into the biopsy needle. In the long run this should result in a tiny biopsy device that can even be used by your general practitioner, and whereby the light beam that is fired at fibre tissue can immediately detect the presence of cancer cells. This is the perfect example of the wide variety of potential application areas that photonics still has in store.