Wider outlook

The scope of photonics is broadening by the day. From fast internet to LEDs to healthcare, the industry has promising potential, says Viviane Reding.

The photonics industry employs around 200,000 people in Europe, and two million other jobs in the manufacturing sector depend on it. The world market for products enabled by photonics is already worth €150bn per annum and this is increasing every year.

To give some more specific examples, cheap telecommunication and the fast internet as we know it today were possible only through optical fibre communication at the backbone of telecom networks. The current world market for optical communication components is around €2.5bn, which is significant but from a global economic perspective not tremendous. However, the market for optical telecom equipment using those components is 10 times larger. The market for telecom services is another 70 times larger.

They are very large markets which continue to grow at an impressive rate and they are being enabled by photonic technology. European suppliers play a strong role in optical communication technology, for instance Bookham as a supplier of optical components and Alcatel as a supplier of optical telecom equipment.

Two more examples of sizeable photonics markets where Europe is strong are lasers and lighting products. In 2004 the world market of lasers for material processing was worth €1.65bn. These lasers formed the core of materials processing and micro-lithography systems worth €7.8bn. Double-digit growth rates are expected over the next 10 years. European companies such as ASML, Zeiss and Rofin-Sinar play a leading role.

Or if we take lighting products, high-brightness LEDs already had a world market of €3.7bn in 2004, with an expected growth to €6.8bn by 2009. There again, European companies (Philips and Osram) are among the leading players in the world.

Moreover, the predicted change from traditional lighting to LED lighting will save a lot of energy. With the energy efficiency we expect for LEDs and OLEDs in five to 10 years, a replacement of all conventional light bulbs in Western Europe could, in theory, save the energy production of 10 large nuclear power plants.

We could extend the list of important photonics markets by mentioning, for instance, displays and CD and DVD technology. In addition to the continued growth of these established markets, we expect new photonic technologies to create important future markets. Super-flat, flexible and energy-efficient displays made of organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) will strongly increase their market share in displays. In a few years we will see OLEDs also appear as flat and energy-efficient lighting tiles.

We will create new types of metrology and sensing systems based on photonics, for instance in security and environmental screening, and in chemical process control.

Last but not least, there is huge and as yet largely untapped potential in healthcare and life sciences. Photonics has the potential of enabling a real paradigm shift in life science and healthcare. Biological processes and substances can be analysed, cells can be manipulated with photons, in a safe and non-invasive way, even in living cells and in real time. Rather than treating the symptoms of disease, as we do now, we will have the ability to detect diseases, such as cancer at a very early stage and prevent its formation. Today drugs are only effective on 40-60 per cent of the targeted patients.

Photonics can enable analysis techniques that allow drugs and therapies to be personalised for each patient, thereby vastly improving the success rate of treatment. Even preventive screening techniques may be applied on a large scale to identify health risks. And finally photonics will be used increasingly in medical treatments, for instance for selective destruction of tumour cells and for other minimally invasive therapies.

After all these visions, let me now come down to earth again. The overall budget for the Seventh Framework Programme and the share of ICT within it are still under political negotiation. For photonics we need to be realistic in our expectations. Given that we will always have less in the way of public resources than we would ideally like, we must make sure that those resources are used to the maximum effect.

We have to approach it from a cost-benefit point of view and make some serious choices about where we should focus our efforts. We must concentrate on those areas that show great promise, are of strategic importance and where we can expect a greater return on investment.

Edited extracts of a speech by Viviane Reding, European commissioner for Information, Society and Media at last month’s Photonics Europe conference in Strasbourg, France