Let there be light: How photonics is transforming tech as we know it

Let there be light: How photonics is transforming tech as we know it

From keeping satellites on course to powering the world’s fastest internet, the science of light is transforming technology and could hold the key to a vibrant new era for Australian manufacturing.

When you use the internet, turn on your smart TV or switch on some LEDs to light your home, you’re reaping the technological benefits of photonics – the science of generating, manipulating and using light.

Technologies like laser machining, 3D printing, microscopy and modern medical diagnostic tools also rely on this critical, though little-known, field.

The broad range of applications powered by photonics has made it a booming industry, contributing $4.3 billion to the Australian economy and employing over 9,500 people in high-tech, high-productivity jobs.

As the Federal Government examines ways to revitalise Australia’s manufacturing base, photonics offers a new way forward for home-grown, high-tech manufacturing.

Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell is head of the Integrated Photonics and Applications Centre (InPAC) at RMIT, which works with industry to co-develop new photonics-based technologies.

Here, Mitchell takes us through six powerful ways that photonics is transforming technology and setting the stage for a brighter future.

 

Image of an electronic chip, lit with coloured light

1. Light can make computer circuits behave more like brains

Engineers have developed an electronic chip that uses light to create and modify memories, mimicking the human brain.

RMIT researchers drew inspiration from an emerging tool in biotechnology – optogenetics – to develop a device that replicates the way the brain stores and loses information.

Optogenetics allows scientists to delve into the body’s electrical system with incredible precision, using light to manipulate neurons so that they can be turned on or off.

The new chip is based on an ultra-thin material that changes electrical resistance in response to different wavelengths of light, enabling it to mimic the way that neurons work to store and delete information in the brain.

Colourful fibre optic cables

2. Filling tiny chips with light can power the world’s fastest internet

Want the power to download 1000 HD movies in a split second? Use the single optical chip that has delivered the world's fastest internet speeds.

A team of RMIT, Monash University and Swinburne University researchers developed a fingernail-sized device called an optical micro-comb, that allows data to be transmitted on each colour wavelength of light at the same time.

The team achieved a data speed of 44.2 Terabits per second (Tbps) from a single light source.

Importantly, the world record speeds were achieved by attaching the new device to existing fibre-optic technology like that used across Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN).

The groundbreaking results could fast-track our telecommunications capacity and that of other countries also struggling with demand on internet infrastructure.

Self-driving vehicle on the road

3. Light can help build high-performance gyroscopes that improve the navigation and safety of driverless cars

If driverless cars are the way of the future, then accurate positioning and sensing is paramount.

High-performance gyroscopes are the devices responsible for this accuracy, but current technical solutions are expensive, large or energy-hungry.

The solution? The world’s most precise, compact and cost-effective gyroscope, being designed and manufactured right here in Australia.

To make the new devices as sensitive to motion change as possible, researchers found a way to measure the miniscule ripples in light.

These tiny changes can have mammoth flow-on effects ­– it’s the difference between a satellite avoiding a meteorite or crashing into it, or an automated car swerving to prevent a collision.

The equipment needed to detect these tiny fluctuations would normally take up a large bench in a laboratory but using integrated photonics the team can compress the light detection technology, shrinking the gyroscopes from the size of bread boxes to the size of coffee cups.

Entanglement structure of a large-scale quantum processor made of light

4. A quantum processor made entirely of light could make computers, drug discovery and machine-learning faster than ever

Quantum computers promise fast solutions to hard problems, but they need a large number of quantum components and must be relatively error free. Current quantum processors are small and prone to errors.

Researchers designed a prototype made entirely of light, an alternative solution to reach the scale needed to eventually outperform classical computers.

The international team of scientists from Australia, Japan and the United States - led by RMIT - produced the large-scale prototype based on a design 10 years in the making.

The team’s approach starts with extreme scalability built in from the very start because the processor, called a ‘cluster state’, is made out of light.

This is likely to lead to faster and more efficient computers, drug discovery and machine-learning.

Diamonds on a black background

5. Light can make diamonds act as powerful sensors for medicine, electronics and defence

What do compasses, birds and diamonds have in common? They can all sense magnetic fields.

Nanodiamonds or microparticles are being deployed in medicine, electronics and defence through quantum photonics, where their ability to fluoresce can be used to sense magnetic fields.

Researchers embed standard glass optical fibres with diamond microparticles to make them sensitive to magnetic fields.

These diamond-doped fibre optic cables have a range of applications – from detecting tiny changes on sea-beds for improved protection against marine defence threats to ultraprecise medical imaging that can detect proteins responsible for disease.    

Sun

6. Harnessing light can create a more sustainable, solar-powered chemical industry

Traditional chemical manufacturing is power-hungry because it requires intensive heating and pressure to drive reactions. The industry currently accounts for about 10% of global energy consumption and 7% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions. 

One of the big challenges in moving to a more sustainable future is that many of the materials that are best for sparking chemical reactions are not responsive enough to light.

But a new photo catalyst developed by RMIT researchers could be the answer. The technology can catch 99% of light across the colour spectrum and 100% of specific colours.

The scaleable and efficient technology allows new opportunities for the use of solar power – moving from electricity generation to directly converting solar energy into valuable chemicals.

 

The Integrated Photonics and Applications Centre (InPAC) in the School of Engineering works with industry and end-users to design, prototype and scale-up photonic chips to create new products in the biomedical, data communications and defence industries. The team aims to make this high-tech know-how accessible to local and global industries with a vison of one day establishing a manufacturing base for these chips here in Australia.

 

Story: Rachael Vorwerk, Gosia Kaszubska

30 July 2020

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30 July 2020

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  • Research
  • Nano & Microtechnology
  • Advanced Manufacturing
  • Engineering
  • Industry

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