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Research taps many sources

As the future of photonics unfolds, research continues to lead to new discoveries and applications for its use. Many have a stake in determining the direction new research should take, local leaders say.

“It’s going to be a collaboration amongst universities and large and small businesses,” said Ryne Raffaelle, vice president for research and associate provost at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“To take advantage of the promise it holds, the challenge is how do you couple that to the outside world? Package it? All is yet to be developed. That is the overall goal the AIM Photonics group is looking to Rochester for.”

Raffaelle refers to it as a sort of microelectronics revolution, noting how we now carry cellphones with more computer power than desktop systems once had.

“That same magnitude of change will happen now with light. We’re going to be able to make computers that are faster, more efficient,” Raffaelle said. “To do with light what we have been traditionally doing with electronics in microelectronics. To put it all together and get it into real systems: computers, cellphones, automobiles. That’s where the academic research leads off and manufacturing takes up.”

To help in the research there is a consortium of more than 50 local companies with expertise in fields such as optics, lasers, biomedicine and advanced manufacturing that have joined with the university community to share ideas.

“They all have a role to play in moving the technology forward,” Raffaelle said. “We’re leading the charge to become a center for testing, assembly and packaging. We eventually want to have a microelectronic fabrication facility here. We can’t just buy that equipment. It has to be developed.”

Companies working in collaboration with RIT include IBM Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Harris Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and OptiMax Systems Inc.

Rochester currently does not have any integrated photonics companies, says Paul Ballentine, executive director at the Center for Emerging and Innovative Sciences at the University of Rochester, and that will be an area for opportunity.

“The growth rate of integrated photonics will be big,” Ballentine said. “We need a broader range of photonics that will leverage our strengths.”

With Rochester’s history and expertise in optics and imaging, there is the ability to build a central location for integrated photonics by working on the components local companies can develop, Ballentine said.

The best strategy for focusing research comes in two steps, he said.

“First, we need to support AIM Photonics,” Ballentine said. “Then we should use the (Upstate Revitalization Initiative) money to develop and collaborate our strengths in optics, lasers and imaging.”

LaserMax Inc. is part of the team working with RIT. Susan Houde-Walter, CEO, is a former professor of optics at UR. In 1989 she co-founded LaserMax. Research and development is a priority, she said, and worth the substantial internal cost at LaserMax.

She joined the consortium to see what there was to learn and how her company could help.

“We want to make sure we select the right areas to focus on. Research is great, but we’re trying to come up with useful technology that is sustainable and will lead to jobs,” she said.

LaserMax has contracts with the Department of Defense using applications that are not silicon-based. The emphasis is on silicon wafer-based photonics now, Houde-Walter said, but she thinks there is a possibility her company’s laser packaging could be used in the future.

“We’ve been doing research in midwave lasers for a long time. It is definitely a growth area,” Houde-Walter said.

Midwave, or middle infrared, lasers are in great demand for a variety of applications, including non-invasive medical diagnoses, remote sensing and free space communications. They also have many defense-related applications such as stand-off detection of explosion hazards.

“There are very strong ties between industry and university (in Rochester),”  Houde-Walter said. “That makes for natural collaborations and potential discoveries. I think it’s a matter of focus. Rather than having a lot of small companies working independently—the whole can be bigger than the sum of its parts.”

UR is recruiting faculty in the area of optics as a result of the AIM photonics’ award.

“It’s a good time for recruitment to support R&D in optics,” said Robert Clark, senior vice president of research at UR.

Clark said he thinks a large part of the research here will be cultivated by the fabrication of silicon chips manufactured by its partners in Albany. Once created there, they will be sent here to be tested, assembled and packaged.

“That will end up driving the research component,” Clark said. “The tools haven’t been developed yet to cultivate the movement of photons in and out of the chips. The interfaces haven’t been developed, and that’s what the federal government really wants.”

The chips are useful components and a key piece of the manufacturing that creates jobs, he said. But the research focus now needs to be on the ultimate use they enable.

“It’s the integrative piece and the end-user technology we are after,” he said.

He sees medicine and dentistry as core strengths for UR, and the focus of applications now is in biosensor technology.

“This is an integration the Department of Defense demands,” Clark said. “Biosensor applications are being used in situations when troops are in combat, for example.”

Adarza BioSystems Inc., founded by UR professor Benjamin Miller, uses biosensor technology. Its leaders are watching photonics with keen interest.

“Any technology that comes out of photonics that advances sensitivity, speed or accuracy in any way would help advancement in detection technology, and we would be insiders in adopting it on our platform,” said Randolph Henke, CEO of Adarza BioSystems.

The company is uniting in several broad partnerships, Henke said. It is heavily involved with the University of Rochester Medical Center, has a research and development center at High Tech Rochester Inc. and also works with Rochester Precision Optics LLC.

The focus of the research will come from more than one source, local players believe.

“The expertise doesn’t exist in one place,” Clark said. “That’s why we have partnerships in California, at MIT, RIT, UR. Each has unique R&D capabilities.”

Partner companies agree.

“When people start thinking of what is possible, you can have good things happen,” Houde-Walter said. “People will collaborate better and we will keep ahead of the technology the rest of the world needs.”

4/1/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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