Creating the building blocks to boost the photonics ecosystem

Integrated photonics holds the promise of addressing some of society's most pressing challenges, spanning from energy-efficient communication and data handling to smart sensing solutions for automated driving and robotics. Holst Centre plays a pivotal role within the prominent Dutch integrated photonics ecosystem, optimizing the foundational building blocks to develop these groundbreaking photonics-based solutions. 

In our daily lives, we're surrounded by microelectronics that control our smartphones, household appliances, laptops, cars, and countless other devices we've grown accustomed to. Traditional electronics rely on chips that utilize electrons to transfer and process information. However, photonic chips employ photons, or light, for this purpose. Integrated photonics takes this concept a step further by integrating photonic components into a microchip, using manufacturing processes akin to those of electronic chips.  

A variety of photonic functions and waveguides are fabricated on the surface of a flat substrate composed of materials such as Indium Phosphide (InP), Silicon Nitride (SiN), or Silicon Photonics (SiPh). Holst Centre specializes in integrating various chip flavours to create optimal building blocks for photonics applications. By merging electronics with photonics and integrating these technologies into comprehensive packages and modules, we can enhance their performance and energy efficiency.  


Ruud Oldenbeuving, , Principal Scientist Photonic Systems for imec at Holst Centre

Communication, sensing and computing  

The potential impact of integrated photonics, also known as ‘photonic integrated circuits’ (PICs), is significant, according to Ruud Oldenbeuving, Principal Scientist Photonic Systems for imec at Holst Centre. "We'll primarily witness three key application areas for this technology: communication, sensing, and computing. Light offers the promise of higher data volumes, resulting in reduced costs and energy requirements per bit transferred. Consequently, the initial market driving this technology is data communication, facilitating a significant increase in bandwidth while enhancing component stability and affordability. In the slipstream we see applications in telecom, but that’s just the start.”   


Sensing is a key focus area for Holst Centre. Gerwin Gelinck, CTO of TNO at Holst Centre, explains, "We anticipate numerous photonics-based sensing applications in automobiles to promote safe and efficient driving. In-cabin sensing, aimed at monitoring the well-being of drivers and passengers, will also gain prominence. Lidar technology, already employed for automated driving functions, benefits from integrated photonics, simplifying location and speed determination while enabling 3D environmental sensing. Furthermore, PIC significantly reduces component count and costs, offering advantages in robotics applications, thereby enhancing logistics in production environments and warehouses. Additionally, the defence industry holds promise for us, particularly in secure communication and rapid, reliable data sharing."  


Gerwin Gelinck, CTO of TNO at Holst Centre

A thriving ecosystem  

The Netherlands stands at the forefront of integrated photonics, with strong advantages to maintain its leadership position. Gerwin Gelinck notes, "We were early adopters in the Netherlands, benefiting from our robust semiconductor and micro-electronics heritage and ecosystem. We have several universities and spin-offs that introduced highly relevant technology to the market at an early stage."  

The PhotonDelta ecosystem boasts two thriving regional knowledge clusters in Eindhoven and Twente. These Nanolabs offer world-leading technology platforms for Indium Phosphide and Silicon Nitride chips, playing a pivotal role in the global photonics industry. Ruud Oldenbeuving adds, "In Eindhoven, SMART Photonics aims to lead as the premier foundry for Indium Phosphide chips. Meanwhile, in Twente, various entities have collaborated to establish the first Dutch independent Silicon Nitride chips foundry: New Origin."  


Holst Centre’s key role  

With two leading knowledge clusters and the potential for two successful foundries for photonics in the Netherlands, Holst Centre plays a pivotal role in the ecosystem by providing the foundation and essential components for future photonic solutions. Gerwin Gelinck explains, "To harness the full potential of photonic applications, it's essential to combine various chip technologies to leverage their respective advantages while mitigating their limitations. Holst Centre's expertise in system integration and advanced chip packaging adds significant value in creating unique, world-class photonic building blocks. Rather than focusing on a specific application, our approach prioritizes optimizing the building blocks to establish a robust foundation for the photonics systems we aim to develop."  


Extreme working conditions  

Combining various chips flavours presents a significant challenge, as Ruud Oldenbeuving acknowledges: "Establishing optical connections between chips while minimizing loss and adjusting interfaces between different materials requires expertise, specialized materials, and technology that is currently unavailable. Additionally, we must consider extreme working conditions, such as the high temperatures encountered by Lidars in automotive applications. This is precisely the domain where Holst Centre has a proven track record of excellence."  


Strong economic perspectives  

Innovating with integrated photonics within an ecosystem of open and dynamic collaborations exemplifies the Holst Centre's approach. Gerwin Gelinck explains, "Technological innovation today is highly specialized and complex. Each company excels in its own subdomain. While you may excel in one aspect of the puzzle, you must align with other stakeholders on the complete puzzle you aim to create. This requires early-stage collaboration with all actors in the value chain and collectively defining the roadmap."  

Ultimately, the collaborating parties aspire to contribute to the continued success of Dutch semiconductors. "Supported by the Dutch Growth Fund, integrated photonics has the potential for significant economic impact, generating growth and career opportunities," says Ruud Oldenbeuving. "This impact will extend beyond highly educated professionals, benefiting individuals at all levels. The establishment of foundries like SMART Photonics and New Origin will create an entire value chain of suppliers, application designers, and subcontractors poised to benefit from this emerging industry."