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Three photonics solutions

20 February 2019 • 4 min reading time

Photonics is a highly promising technology for generating, transmitting and detecting light waves and light particles. It is not without good reason that photonics is one of the key focus areas for the Dutch coalition agreement. TNO is helping, with clients, to develop photonics solutions in the Dutch Optics Centre. Three concrete applications – an optical biosensor, a measuring instrument for freeform optical surfaces and a particle scanner – illustrate the wide range of possibilities offered by photonics.

Photonics is applied in a broad spectrum of products and processes in which light (photons) plays an important part. Photonic solutions, for example, can help meet the growing demand for fast and reliable communications and the digitization of industry. Photonics is a good example of orchestrating innovation, and is regarded as a key technology. TNO set up the Dutch Optics Centre (DOC) in 2016 with the Delft University of Technology, for the purpose of enhancing unique Dutch knowledge of optics/photonics together with high-tech companies and knowledge institutes and to develop innovative products.

1) OPTICAL BIOSENSOR

An optical biosensor is currently being developed – this is a device able to analyse a drop of blood to establish whether a person has an infectious disease, for example. It is based on knowledge developed by TNO to detect biomarkers; these are proteins which, in certain concentrations in blood for example, indicate the presence of diseases. 

The present prototype is still too large and too expensive for large-scale production to be worthwhile. It continues to be developed at spin-off Delta Diagnostics towards being a simple point-of-care device. “A small, light box in which a disposable cartridge with a drop of blood can be put. In just a matter of minutes, optical sensors then record what concentrations of protein are in the sample, which makes it possible to make a diagnosis,” explains Bart de Boer of TNO. DOC is assisting Delta Diagnostics in bringing this diagnosis device to the bedside as quickly as possible.

With the correct biomarkers, the biosensor can be used for all kinds of applications. This includes in acute situations to determine whether someone has had a heart attack or stroke. In remote areas, too, where there are no laboratories or electricity, the biosensor will be invaluable. There are countless applications - MRSA, the Ebola and Zika viruses, and the detection of exposure to nerve gas, for instance. It could also prove useful for making early diagnoses, but that is still some way off.

“Ten years ago, TNO had the vision that if you could make freeform optics, you should also be able to measure them. We are now furthering the development of this, and bringing it to market”

2) NANOMEFOS

DOC and Demcon developed NANOMEFOS together, an advanced measuring instrument for freeform optical surfaces. Dutch United Instruments, or DUI, has been established in order to launch this product onto the market. “Ten years ago, TNO had the vision that if you could make freeform optics, you should also be able to measure them. We are now furthering the development of this, and bringing it to market,” says Gerard van den Eijkel, of Demcon.

Aspheric and freeform optics, which are being increasingly used in high-end optical systems, are difficult to measure using conventional methods. NANOMEFOS is able to do so – very accurately and quickly – and that makes it unique. The contactless machine works like a large CD player, with the surface being tested placed on an airborne pivot, while an optical probe is placed above it using a motion system. 

Parties in China are particularly interested in NANOMEFOS. It is not entirely coincidental that the abbreviation DUI means ‘correct’ in Chinese. A major market is that of the aerospace industry and large mirrors/telescopes on earth, but in fact the same is true of every sector that uses freeform optics.

3) ‘FAST-MICRO’ Particle Scanner

Chips are being made with ever-smaller structures, thanks to nanotechnology. During the manufacturing stage of chips, contamination by the smallest of particles renders them useless. To prevent this, DOC and Lans Engineering have developed the ‘Fast-micro’ particle scanner, which is able to detect nano-scale contamination. “By using the scanner, it is possible to determine whether a component or module is clean enough to go into a chip machine,” explains Rob Lansbergen, formerly of TNO, who founded Lans Engineering in 2000.

“To develop these future products and to explore their possibilities, we need DOC/TNO”

Ideally, Lans Engineering would like to realize a series of scanners and prototypes with DOC. “We recently obtained a grant that will enable us to continue developing particle scanners. To develop these future products and to explore their possibilities, we need DOC/TNO,” add Lansbergen.

It is not just to the chip industry that the measuring of particles on a nano scale brings significant added value. For this reason, the parties envisage opportunities for rolling out their technology to other sectors. All kinds of applications are possible, such as with the production of OLED televisions and the lamination of aircraft.

Orchestrating Innovation

TNO set up the Dutch Optics Centre (DOC) in 2016 with the Delft University of Technology, for the purpose of enhancing Dutch knowledge of optics/photonics together with high-tech companies and knowledge institutes and to develop innovative products. Innovation projects, such as those in photonics, are complex processes that have a long period of incubation and require collaboration. Finding the right type of project, approach and partners is a skill in itself. TNO specializes in bringing parties together and in activating innovation and technology experts. We refer to this approach as ‘orchestrating innovation’. In order to accelerate the development of photonics, PhotonicsNL, Dutch Optics Centre and PhotonDelta have drawn up a National Photonics Agenda, at the request of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy and others.

TNO and DOC are always ready to enter into collaborative partnerships with parties who have complementary knowledge or who are keen to invest in the highly promising photonics technology. 

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