Small light laboratory in Gooik is looking for a solution to major world problems

Behind an unobtrusive facade in a typical Flemish village street, there is a world-class laboratory in photonics, the science of light. ‘We are looking for solutions that no other technology can offer.’

“Wait here, I will first ask if it is safe,” says Professor Hugo Thienpont, before disappearing behind a heavy, white curtain. His concern is not exaggerated. In the room we are going to visit, the researchers are working with focused laser beams, which you cannot see with the naked eye. If you accidentally walk through there, you could get severe burns or eye damage.

This part of the photonics laboratory at VUB, of which Thienpont is director, is also a sensitive place for other reasons. Research is underway into the properties of photonic chips, a new generation of microchips that help make computers smaller, faster and more efficient. It is technology in which the world’s largest tech companies and powers have a special interest.

On the ground floor, Thienpont shows us very expensive machines that allow employees to mill, polish and injection molds and optical components with extreme precision. He digs through a container of clear plastic sheets, holds one up, and points to some small air bubbles trapped in the plastic. ‘These are components for lidar sensors. They are used in self-driving cars to make such a car look in all directions. But they have to be perfect. If they contain such bubbles, they do not work ‘.

Extreme precision is an essential requirement in photonics, he explains. ‘We are working here on a scale of nanometers – one nanometer corresponds to the thickness of about 10 atoms. If you make a lens with a small hole of 25 nanometers in it, the lens is worth nothing. ‘ This explains why Brussels VUB moved with its photonics laboratory to Gooik, a quiet village in Pajottenland. ‘In the city you suffer from all kinds of vibrations. At Leuven’s chip research center Imec, this has been solved with a kind of floating building that absorbs all vibrations. Because we do not have the budget for that, so we bought something out in the country.

Never say never, that’s our motivation.

Hugo Thienpont

Head of photonics lab VUB

Anyone who is not looking for the lab drives past it without a trace. It is housed in a former horticultural business. Behind the facades of what appear to be two renovated townhouses, hides a machine park worth millions. The laboratory also has a dust-free clean room and makes its own nitrogen in the basement, which is necessary in some machines to be able to work under a protective atmosphere.

Despite its rather modest location, the laboratory is world-class in photonics. In 1985, VUB was one of the first universities to set up a research group in this burgeoning field. It was pioneering work. ‘My former boss, Professor Roger Van Geen, said that optics was the future when there was nothing yet. Campus has grown gradually. We were the first to supply photonics engineers, and we put the international master of photonics on the map, “says Thienpont.

The young discipline may not be the most well-known or beloved branch of engineering, but it has many crosses with other research domains and has a wide range of applications. Photonics can be found in the cameras of our smartphones, in the sensors in modern cars, but just as much in solar panels, sorting machines from food companies, medical equipment or fiber optics for data communication.

Professor Hugo Thienpont.
© Tim Dirven

It is primarily these many applications that propel photonics forward, says Thienpont. Light has unique features that you can use to make existing applications many times better. We are looking for the ‘unique sales proposal’. ‘

A known example is fiber optic cables, where data is transmitted via light signals, at a speed and capacity that is many times greater than traditional data transport via copper. The laboratory is conducting research into changing the structure of these fiber optic cables to further increase their speed. »Small-scale data communication, on and between chips, will increasingly take place with optical components. This enables huge savings in data centers, which means you can emit up to 500 million tonnes less CO₂ annually worldwide. ‘

Elsewhere in the laboratory, a researcher shows a long optical fiber that can be used as a catheter. ‘The end of the wire lights up when it detects ionizing radiation. This allows doctors to irradiate tumors in the body with great precision. ‘ Or how the science of light can also help in the fight against cancer. Another promising application is ‘Lab on Chip’ technology, where cells, blood or saliva can be analyzed quickly and cheaply on a chip card.

New breakthroughs in photonics are usually the result of excellent technology, the use of new materials or the development of completely new concepts, at Thienpont. Several times in his career he has heard people say that ‘the limit has been reached’, or that something ‘will never be possible’. “Hearing it just makes me look for the Holy Grail. Never say never, that’s what drives us.”

Today, the direction of the photonics laboratory is largely determined by Europe, which has set its strategic priorities until 2027 in the Horizon programs. Thienpont is a board member of Photonics 21, a public-private partnership that can help distribute 750 million euros of European research funding among 3,000 affiliated organizations. The focus is on major projects such as the fight against cancer, climate neutrality, smart cities, clean oceans and more sustainable land and water management.

We have already been able to help hundreds of SMEs.

Hugo Thienpont

Head of photonics lab VUB

As Vice-Rector, the director of the Photonics Laboratory is also responsible for innovation and for the valorisation of VUB research. He runs his laboratory with an infectious blend of scientific passion and entrepreneurship. He emphasizes that basic research must also lead to concrete applications, in collaboration with other research centers and industry.

“The basic rule will always be that we decide for ourselves what we want to work with. But the budgets, of course, are not infinite. I ask my researchers to specialize in things where they are very good or unique, and take into account the realities of the manufacturing industry and production chains from the start. If you have several options for achieving something, then choose the one that best suits the industry. That way, we can bring innovations to society much faster. ‘

Large companies usually find their own path to relevant lighting technology, but many SMEs do not have the time or knowledge for this. Thienpont therefore launched the European program Photon Hub, a consortium of 54 partners that provides tailored advice at corporate fairs and in demo centers. Europe devised the program at the end of 2020 with a budget of 19 million euros. “We have already been able to help hundreds of SMEs,” says Thienpont.

‘We used to make the mistake of trying to push technology into the business world. It is much better to first ask what their challenges are and come up with solutions. For example, a company looking for a special coating may be better off with laser technology. But then it must first know that it exists.

The expansion is coming

A few years before his retirement, Hugo Thienpont hopes to complete another important project: the expansion of his photonics laboratory with a new building. ‘It is necessary because the current laboratory is crammed with technology. There is nothing more in it, “he says.

The Flemish government will also release 5 million euros from the funds from its Flemish resistance investment plan for enlargement. In addition to 3.5 million euros for new devices, 1 million euros will also go to equip a photonics training center. “The goal is to reach people from all walks of life, from technical schools and colleges to universities and companies. It will be the first center of its kind. ‘

The new center will organize highly targeted training courses and internships. “We are also counting on a repayment process somewhere. Companies that can educate their people here will return later to work with us on other things, ”says Thienpont.

The Flemish millions come on top of B-Phot’s operating budget, which amounts to about 8 million euros this year. 80 to 90 percent of the budget is financed externally, mainly by the EU and the Flemish government.

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