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Lighting the Way
June 3, 2015   
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Some of the world’s best infrared detectors and hi-tech fiber optics are manufactured in Poland. Polish research centers are particularly knowledgeable about liquid crystal and gallium nitride crystal technologies used in sectors such as blue photonics and optoelectronics.

Poland boasts a long tradition of research related to light. Forty years ago, chemists from the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in the eastern city of Lublin started manufacturing fiber optics. In 1979, the first fiber optic-based telecommunications line was launched in Lublin. At the time, Poland was the fifth country worldwide, alongside the United States, Britain, France and Japan, to have introduced this innovative technology.

Today cutting-edge fiber optics used in modern fiber-optic systems and devices are produced in Poland. These are manufactured by the Fiber Optic Technology Unit at the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, in addition to a fiber-optic department at the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology in Warsaw and a unit at the Białystok University of Technology. Fiber optics produced in Poland include perforated photonic fiber optics with a honeycomb-like microstructure—these are made of silica, polymers or multicomponent glass. Depending on the material they are made of, fiber optics vary in characteristics and possible applications.

Photonic fiber optics can be used as sensor systems for processing information and generating the so-called supercontinuum, or high-quality white light. In the future they will also be used to transmit information. For now, producing them is expensive compared with fiber optics used in telecommunications.

Another Polish specialty are infrared detectors. These are manufactured by R&D company Vigo System, a spin-off founded by Prof. Józef Piotrowski and currently run by his son. The infrared detectors produced by Vigo System are among the best in the world. One of these detectors was used in the American rover Curiosity to explore the surface of Mars, becoming a hallmark of Polish photonics.

“Poland can also boast liquid crystal technology used in photonics and developed by researchers including chemists from the Military University of Technology in Warsaw,” says Prof. Tomasz Woliński, head of the Optics and Photonics Department at the Warsaw University of Technology’s Faculty of Physics.

It all started more than 30 years ago when a plan was proposed to develop flat liquid crystal displays. Nowadays many such devices are produced, based on liquid crystal spatial light modulators, such as new-generation displays and projectors. Researchers have gained a closer insight into the specific optical characteristics of liquid crystals. Polish research centers have contributed to laying the foundations for this knowledge in physical, chemical and optical terms.

Woliński’s team at the Warsaw University of Technology leads the way in filling micro-orifices in photonic fiber optics with liquid crystals. Research in this area has been conducted for more than 10 years.

“If we have a photonic fiber optic filled with liquid crystals, we can modify and dynamically adjust its characteristics by stimulating it from the outside. This is particularly important when controlling optical signals. And that’s the kind of research that my team at the Warsaw University of Technology Faculty of Physics pursues,” Woliński says.

Poland has substantial potential in photonics technology. This is a field of science that does not generate high costs. New products are taking the market by storm. Photonics is often combined with micro- and nanoelectronics. This technology is entering medical science, offering non-invasive imaging methods in medicine as well as diagnostic tomography and optical systems.

Meanwhile, technologies combining photonics and electronics have been developed for the so-called blue photonics sector by the TopGaN and Ammono companies using gallium nitride crystals. This year’s Noble Prize in physics went to Japanese researchers who invented the blue light-emitting diode using Polish gallium nitride crystals.

Several dozen companies and research centers in Poland specialize in optoelectronics and photonics. Most of them are members of the Polish Photonics Technology Platform, an association led by Przemysłowe Centrum Optyki, an industrial optics producer in Warsaw that works mainly for the army and the defense industry. The association coordinates efforts to implement research results in this area in business practice. Photonics has been one of the priorities of the European Union for five years now. The Polish Photonics Technology Platform aims to not only foster research into photonics, but also manufacture new products and equipment and put them on the market.

Karolina Olszewska
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