Case study: photonics
Taking photonics into the future
Hugo Thienpont talks to Anna Demming about the importance of collaboration for the continued success of t he phot onic s s ec t o r t i e n p o n
H u g o
P h o t o n i c s r e s e a r c h i n E u r o p e i s t h r i v i n g , w i t h numerous groups across different countries connecting together, and contributing a unique strand of expertise that advances knowledge and understanding across the field. But it has not always been this way, and Hugo Thienpont, director of photonics research at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, worries that fresh challenges may yet threaten this golden age of collaboration and progress.
Photonics research in Europe has long been a competitive business. Such compet i t i o n c an s pu r o n r e s e a r c h g r o up s t o a c h i e v e more than their rivals, but it doesn’t always foster a working environment that boosts the whole field. Groups vie with each other to be the f irst to publish, potentially wasting valuable resources, funding and energy.
In 2003, Thienpont therefore proposed a bold plan to establish a network that would help photonics researchers to work together – sharing best practices and expensive equipment while making sure that each group focuses on what it does best, something that has become known as “smart specialization”. But restructuring the research landscape across an entire continent was no mean feat, particularly for a young professor. “It was very, very bold to make that move,” s a y s T h i e np o n t . “ I had a v i s i o n and an approach that I think a lot of people liked, so they gave me the opportunity to collaborate with them to make i t happen.”
The result was the Network of Excellence on Micro-optics or “NEMO”, which received €6.4m from the European Commission, and ran from 2004 to 2010, with 30 member groups from 13 countries. More recently, Thienpont has become co-ordinator of ACTPHAST 4.0 (ACceleraTing PHotonics innovAtion for SMEs: a one STop-shopi n c ub a t o r ) – an i n c ub a t o r f o r pho t on i c s i nno
Captain NEMO Hugo T hienpont has helmed t he r es t r uc t ur ing of t he photonic s r esear ch.
vation focusing on the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Europe.
Teamwork makes the dream work The same love and aptitude for working with people has helped Thienpont to build the small r e s ear ch g r oup he s e t up i n 1990, a f t e r completing his PhD, into the Brussels Photonics Team – a globally acclaimed photonics centre with around 60 researchers and s t a f f . C r u c i a l t o h i s s u c c e s s ha s b e e n a s t r o n g strategic vision, along with plenty of perseverance and passion, but he clearly values working with his team. “What really matters, I think, is the joy of working with people on a daily basis,” he says. “You improve your own skills and those of others by collaborating.”
P h o t o n i c s r e s e a r c h a t t h e V r i j e Un i v e r s i t e i t B r u s s e l f o c u s e s o n m i c r o l a s e r s ; g r ap h e n e a s a nonlinear optical material; optical devices for medical applications; optical fibre sensors for measuring temperature, pressure and strain; and free-form optics – a lens technology that abandons the traditional spherical shape to avoid optical aberrations. Despite significant metrology and fabrication challenges, Thienpont describes free-form optics as “the next revolution in opt ical lenses”.
He also has clear ideas about what is needed to revolutionize the photonics sector as a whole. “The real challenge lies in the interdisciplinary aspects for photonics,” says Thienpont, who cites the “key enabling technologies” (KETs) that have been identified by the European Commission as drivers of society and economy, along with the “cross-KETs” where these technologies work together, and where he believes photonics can play a crucial role. “We need to revolutionize photonics not only as a key enabling technology, but also to link it up to all the other key enabling technologies such as advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, nanotechnology and nanoelectronics, and new materials to create biophotonics, nano p h o t o n i c s , l a s e r s i n manu f a c t u r i n g , and o p t ical materials.”
This faith in the potential impact of interdisciplinary photonics research persuaded T h i e np o n t t o a c c e p t t h e r o l e o f e d i t o r - i n - c h i e f of the recently launched JPhys Photonics from IOP Publishing (which also publishes Physics World). “When asked about this new journal for photonics, I said I will accept this with great pleasure but on one condition – that we make it the first truly interdisciplinary journal for photonics. Because that’s the future.”
Open your minds Thienpont concedes that truly interdisciplinary work is not easy – not least because different disciplines use their own scientific
Physics World Careers 2020
In association with brightrecruits