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Photonics in Canada has tradition and future

More than 400 companies and a good dozen scientific institutions in Canada are involved in photonics. The industry has a long tradition—and a very lively start-up scene.

From today's perspective, it is an astonishingly far-sighted article that Alan Baker published in the Canadian Journal of Communication in 1979. The scientist from Toronto Metropolitan University, then known as Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, writes about the potential of fiber optic technology, which he explains in detail: “The fiber itself is a hair-thin, flexible—yet strong glass filament which can carry bi-directional voice and video messages in the form of high-frequency light beams supplied either by Laser Light or LED (light-emitting diode). One fiber can carry thousands of voice signals, several TV channels, and millions of „bits“ of computer data. The optical cable consists of about a dozen of fibres and can be linked or ‘interfaced’ with existing computer systems.” The scientist was convinced that this innovation will take only a few years to fundamentally change telecommunications, television and people’s entire information behavior—even if there were still some technical challenges to be solved around electro-optical conversion.

Baker was no clairvoyant at the time, but a keen observer of the advent of optical data transmission in his native Canada. According to his article, Bell Northern Research had already installed the first fiber optic system at the National Defense Headquarters in Ottawa in 1976. Such “systems have complete immunity to interference, not only form electrical sources, but also from ‘snoopers’—it is practically tap-proof,” he wrote and announced, that Bell Canada, the communications giant, was planning to replace its copper lines with fiber-optic networks in the 1980s. He sees massive impact on the TV market in these plans. Telephone companies could offer their own TV channels and individualized video services, interactive messaging or implement concepts for “wired cities”.

Pioneers of laser and fiber optic technology

Baker’s article is full of quotes showing that behind the scenes, there were fierce debates about access to and regulation of the fiber optic infrastructure. Also, the next disruption was already on the horizon: cable-satellite networks. “Laser-optical technology is easily adaptable to satellite systems and as far as space communications go, the laser beam could function effectively as a message carrier, not being subject to atmospheric attenuation as it would be at lower altitudes,” the scientist explains.

The historical document demonstrates that Canada has often been a leader in the photonic awakening of the past 60 years. Bell Northern Research, for example, was able to build on a decade of research into optical fibers when it installed the first fiber optic network in 1976. This research later sprouted a spin-off that soon morphed into a global player in the telecom sector: the Nortel Networks Corporation. Even though Nortel was dissolved in a protracted insolvency process starting in 2009, its technological legacy and mindset continues to have an impact: Canada's photonics industry is teeming with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with roots in the Nortel era. Over the years, an ecosystem of universities, research institutes, as well as domestic and foreign suppliers and partner companies had grown around the group and can still be found in the corridor between Ottawa and Quebec.

Vibrant science and start-up scene

The world’s first CO2 laser also originated in this region. At the end of the 1960s, it was Jacques A. Beaulieu who invented the high-power gas laser with transverse excitation at atmospheric pressure—in short: CO2 TEA laser. The Canadians put lasers and optical fibers in context early on. Institutes such as the National Institute of Optics (INO), the Centre d’optique, photonique et laser (COPL) at Université Laval, the National Defense Research and Development Centre (DRDC) and another eight universities in the Québec region which conduct photonics research serve as the scientific backbone. Not only do they train the next generation of scientists and constantly push the boundaries of what is possible with their research, they also produce many start-ups. A good third of the 220 companies that make up the photonics industry in the province of Québec are less than ten years old.

An important link is the Optonique cluster in Québec, founded in 2017 on the initiative of industry. It brings together the players from the different worlds and is an active part of the support network that helps start-ups on their way from the academic world to the market. With success: many young companies succeed in making the transition from the start-up to the scale-up phase. Among other things, the cluster supports them in gaining a foothold in the international market. The regular joint booth at LASER World of PHOTONICS, where more than a dozen companies from the Canadian cluster presented themselves in 2023, also helps in this regard—among them the innovation award winner Castor Optics and the long-established specialist for optical fibers, Coractive, and TeraXion, whose nearly 70-member research and development department produces innovative fiber Bragg gratings, low-noise lasers, and increasingly integrated photonic elements. The above are just a small sample of a vibrant industry that deserves a closer look. For it is possible that photonics pioneers with foresight are at work there today, just as they were in the 1970s.

Among the candidates is mid-infrared laser technology. Companies like LumIR Lasers, founded in 2019, articulate ambitious goals: “It's about democratizing the technological marvels of the mid-infrared and bring about a new laser revolution in all sectors of industry.” Femtum, a slightly older start-up, is also planning big things with mid-infrared fiber lasers for the wavelength range between 2.8 and 3.5 microns: “Our pulsed lasers enable new precision processing capabilities on non-metallic materials such as thin film patterning or polymer and semiconductor processing, to increase the manufacturing yield and ROI in the high-tech manufacturing sector,” the team claims. One thing is clear. The Canadian photonics industry not only has a long tradition. It also has its sights set firmly on the future.