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Why a modest lab in Flanders is photonics’ brightest spark

Behind an unremarkable facade in the small Flanders municipality of Gooik, you can find a world-leading lab specialized in photonics. “We look for solutions that no other technology can provide,” says Prof. Dr. Hugo Thienpont, director at the Photonics Innovation Center of VUB, one of Flanders’ universities. There, various experts and specialists are researching the properties of photonic chips, a new generation of microchips that can help make computers smaller, faster and more economical: a technology in which the world’s largest tech companies and governments have a growing interest. 

Vibrant countryside setting

Extreme precision is essential in photonics. Thienpont: “We work on a nanometer scale. If you make a lens and it gets even the tiniest dent of, say, 25 nanometers, that lens become worthless.” These high stakes explain why VUB moved its Photonics Innovation Center to Gooik, a quiet village in Flanders’ countryside. 

“In the city,” Thienpont explains, “we would have to deal with all sorts of vibrations. At Leuven-based imec, Flanders’ strategic research center for nanotech and digital innovation, they’ve solved this problem by conceiving a sort of floating building that absorbs all the vibrations. Since we don’t have the budget to do something similar, we decided to set up a facility in the countryside.”

Modest but world-class

If you’re not looking for the lab, chances are you will drive past it just like that. The innovation center is located in a building formerly occupied by a horticultural firm. But behind the facades of what appear to be two renovated terraced houses, you’ll find machinery worth millions. The lab also has a dust-free cleanroom and produces its own nitrogen in the basement, which is needed for protective purposes in some machines.  

Despite its rather modest location, the lab is a world leader in photonics. Back in 1985, VUB was one of the first universities to start a research group in this scientific field. Talk about pioneering work! “My former boss, Professor Roger Van Geen, said that photonics was the future, at a time when there was virtually nothing in this field. The campus grew gradually. We were the first to produce photonics engineers, and we put the international master’s program in photonics on the map,” says Thienpont. 

At a crossroads of disciplines and applications

Photonics may not be the best-known branch of engineering science, but it has many intersections with other research areas that have a wide range of applications. Photonics can be found, for example, in smartphone cameras, car sensors, solar panels, food sorting machines, medical devices or fiber optics for data communication. It’s this variety of applications that mainly drives photonics forward.

Light has unique properties that you can use to make existing applications much, much better. We seek to deliver that unique selling proposition.

Prof. Dr. Hugo Thienpont
director at the Photonics Innovation Center

A well-known example is fiber optic cables in which data is transmitted via light signals, with a speed and capacity that are many times greater than classic data transport via copper. The Photonics Innovation Center conducts research into changing the structure of those fiber optic cables to further increase their speed. Thienpont: “Optical components will also play an increasing role in bringing about data communication on a smaller scale, i.e., on and between micro- and nanochips. This development can lead to immense savings in data centers, for instance, allowing for a reduction of around 500 million tons of CO₂ annually worldwide."

Another example are the long optical fibers that can be used in catheters. The end of such a wire will light up when it detects ionizing radiation. This allows doctors to irradiate cancerous tumors in the body with great precision. But it doesn’t end there. Yet another promising application is lab-on-chip technology, where cells, blood or saliva can be analyzed quickly and cheaply on a chip-based reader.

Never say never

New breakthroughs in photonics are usually the result of excellent engineering, the use of new materials or the development of completely new concepts. Thienpont: “Throughout my career, I have heard people say that ‘the limit has been reached’ or that something ‘will never be possible’. Whenever I hear that, I’m triggered to start looking for this so-called holy grail. ‘Never say never’ is our driving force.”

As vice-rector, the director of the photonics lab is also responsible for the valorization of VUB research. Thienpont runs the lab with a contagious mix of scientific passion and entrepreneurial drive: “I ask researchers to specialize in things they excel at, or that they alone can do while encouraging them to take into account the reality of the manufacturing industry and production chains right from the start. If you have several ways to achieve something, choose the one that best fits the world of business and industry. That way, you can introduce innovations into society much faster.”

Large companies usually find their way to relevant photonics tech on their own, but SMEs often lack the time or knowledge to do that. Thienpont therefore launched a European program called ‘Photon Hub’, a consortium of 54 partners that gives tailored advice to companies. Europe conceived the program in 2020 with a budget of EUR 19 million. “We have already helped hundreds of SMEs,” says Thienpont.

Expansion on the horizon

Just a few years before his retirement, Thienpont hopes to complete another important project: the expansion of the photonics lab with an additional facility. In this regard, Flanders is earmarking EUR 5 million for the expansion through the funds of the government’s ‘Flemish Resilience’ investment plan. In addition to EUR 3.5 million for new devices, EUR 1 million will go towards equipping a photonics training center. Thienpont: “The aim is to reach people from all walks of life, from technical schools and colleges to universities and companies. The center will be the first of its kind and will organize very targeted training courses and internships.”

Learn more about cutting-edge photonics in Flanders.
Zoom in on Flanders’ nanotech innovation track record. 

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Reported by
newspaper De Tijd
17 June 2022

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