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Outlook 2010: Photonics have a bright future

The partnership of technology and light inspired the creation of optoelectronics supplier Pacer more than 20 years ago – and its continued growth is being driven by the emergence of new applications and markets aligned to this partnership.

Pacer's technology offering brings together electrons and photons. Optoelectronics can be defined as the emission, manipulation and detection of light – and optoelectronic devices make use of the effect of light on semiconducting materials. They respond not only to electrons, but also to photons and convert either from optical to electrical, or electrical to optical, or indeed both. Optoelectronics is generally viewed as a sub division of the broader science of photonics, which also includes the generation, amplification, transmission and switching of light.

The number of applications looking to benefit from advances in optoelectronics is increasing dramatically. This is clearly great news for the sector, but it does present suppliers with the significant challenge of keeping up. Technical staff must not only keep abreast of all aspects of the various optoelectronic technologies, they also must remain in a position to advise customers on using these technologies in a broad range of applications.

Fortunately, suppliers to the industry provide regular in depth technical training for applications engineers, enabling Pacer – amongst others – to provide the 'bridge' between their products and end users.

Pacer's role is to take the technology and align it to the applications we see in our market – in many cases, offering revolutionary new solutions to engineering problems, while replacing tried and tested methods.

The application often drives the development approach. Start up companies addressing leading edge applications will in general be used to 'pushing the envelope' and entertaining fairly radical ideas. But engineers in more established industries may not be so readily disposed. They often need some convincing to try something different and we couldn't do that without sound expertise and good training.

Optoelectronics applications
An obvious market leading application for optoelectronics is the lighting sector. Great progress has been made towards the replacement of inefficient tubes and bulbs with LED based lighting systems, which offer more environmentally friendly and often less bulky lighting solutions with longer lifetimes.

One problem has been the difficulty in producing an even, broad spectrum of light such as that generated by fluorescents or filament lamps. However, this problem is being solved through the use of light monitoring sensors and feedback ICs to control the LED light output. Where specific colours, colour consistency over area and time and colour changing capability are required – such as for domestic, architectural and mood lighting – the flexibility of the LED comes into its own. Thermal management techniques are important to maximise the lifetime of LEDs, so manufacturers have invested heavily in researching this area and developing new methods.

New applications for optoelectronics encompass the whole spectrum of light, not just visible light. Infrared illumination, for applications such as night vision cameras, security and video surveillance, now uses LED arrays in place of the more traditional IR lamps. Ultraviolet light sources have a wealth of applications, including security, forensics, biology, spectrophotometry, sterilisation, disinfection and curing.

Optoelectronic devices have a huge part to play in environmental matters. The transition of lighting systems from traditional lamps and tubes to LEDs has a major impact on energy efficiency (better) as well as on product lifetimes (longer). The widespread adoption of electronic displays in place of printed signs is a trend that obviously increases overall energy consumption and so power management becomes crucial for display manufacturers, especially when it comes to larger displays.

Here, we find another use for the light level sensors that Pacer supplies. These devices are ideal for ambient light sensing – the display's brightness can thus be controlled to optimise both power consumption and the viewing experience dependent on the ambient light conditions. Newer, thinner display technologies such as organic LED (OLED) open up a new raft of applications suiting space saving or flexible displays, with the latest active matrix OLEDs offering stunning contrast and vibrancy in full colour. OLED technology lends itself to commercial lighting and to innovative home lighting.

Phototherapeutic innovations
The medical sector is creating many interesting new applications for optoelectronic technology. The field of phototherapeutics, or light therapy, involves exposure to light of different wavelengths. This may be very specific in some cases, or full spectrum in others.

Phototherapy has been used to treat acne, sleep problems, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and minor bacterial and viral conditions with great success. Phototherapeutic techniques are now being targeted at an increasing number of cosmetic procedures, such as wrinkles, warts, skin rejuvenation and tightening.

A ground breaking new treatment for Alzheimer's Disease is being pioneered, in which the sufferer wears a helmet to apply light of a specific wavelength to the brain. This approach may also be applied to other dementia related conditions.

Research has shown that different wavelengths of light work best for different conditions, so clinical trials establish the optimum wavelength and exposure time for each condition before a new phototherapy treatment can be made available. Optoelectronics design engineers must then take these clinical results and design a product to deliver the treatment safely and effectively.

Pacer's design centre was set up to offer customers a route to outsourced optoelectronic design capability and, in recent years, medical and phototherapy applications have featured prominently. Pacer's engineers were involved in the design of the Virulite electronic cold sore treatment, which uses light with a wavelength of 1072nm to treat cold sores. The device is now widely available commercially and, if used to treat the early, tingling stage of a cold sore, it can help to prevent the sore from developing. Light therapy is non invasive and non toxic and, for this application, the treatment device is small, light and inexpensive.
The use of cellular biomedical research now relies entirely on highly sophisticated photonics based technology to enable early indicators of potential drug and genetic treatments. This process enables treatments with the most encouraging cell based results to go forward, reducing the risk, time and cost of medical trials.

Medical applications can bring new demands on product specifications and quality control. One example which Pacer has seen is the very tight wavelength tolerances (of ±8nm) demanded by a medical biofluorescence application. Supply chains need to be up to the task of meeting such demands.

Harsh environments
UK companies designing sensors for harsh environments have benefited from using optical technologies. Applications such as down hole drilling or turbine system gas monitoring involve temperatures so extreme that passive optical systems have had to be used for gas, pressure and strain sensing.

Completely new architectures and processes are required for the manufacture of sensing systems, which will experience temperatures of up to 700°C at the sensing element, but which have conventional technology tucked away in a more benign environment. Optical components provide the key to the interfacing requirements.

The challenges of 2010
Finding new ways to harness together the powers of technology and light, and helping customers to implement them will continue to challenge the optoelectronics industry in 2010. It certainly won't be boring.


Pacer International is a specialist supplier of optoelectronic components, laser solutions, photonic instruments and information displays. It offers a wide range of LEDs, LED arrays and light engines, photo sensors and detectors, laser components and systems, optics and acousto optics, collimators, spectrometers, telecom products, fibre optics, imaging sensors, cameras, LCD, TFT, EL and OLED displays, monitors, digital signage, sunlight readable displays, panel PCs, CCTV and surveillance products. Pacer's dedicated Design Centre offers optoelectronic design and build services. Its in house electronic, optical and mechanical design resource means that it can take on the complete design and build of your product.

Author
Graham Rothon, managing director, Pacer International

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