The Czech photonics cluster is growing

The Czech Republic’s optical industry has its roots in the 17th century. Today, the country has a modern photonics sector which is dominated by medium-sized companies, employs over 30,000 people, and has a big research scene.

It all began with the discovery of precious stones in the Turnov region in the north of the Czech Republic. The first grinding shops were set up back in the 17th century. These evolved into glass factories, and an optical industry slowly developed. Spectacle lenses, crystal growing, optomechanical and optoelectronic systems, laser optical systems, microscopes, or modern lighting systems for cars—a cutting-edge photonics industry has come into being in the Czech Republic in recent decades. According to Petr Přikryl, managing director of the Czech Optical Cluster, it currently employs 30,000 people.

Six universities and four well-known research institutions that have made a name for themselves on the global stage belong to the cluster. These include TOPTEC in Turnov whose laboratories regularly produce high-end optical systems for the European Space Agency ESA and complex, often aspheric free-form lenses for industrial partners. In addition to the latest technology for the precision machining, coating, and measurements of optical systems, the TOPTEC laboratories also have comprehensive know-how when it comes to non-linear optical materials as well as electrooptical and electromechanical materials. At the same time, teams at the institution which belongs to the Czech Academy of Sciences look at ultra-fast and hyperspectral computer-assisted spectroscopy and imaging processes.

Research on the highest international level

The top names in the field of science include HiLASE and ELI Beamlines which are also members of the Czech Academy of Sciences. The HiLASE laser research institute in Dolní Břežany near Prague was established in 2011 and has had an operative function since 2016. It currently employs 1,200 people and, along with the neighboring ELI Laser Center, is one of the country’s biggest institutions. The HiLASE research teams set new world records on an almost regular basis. Back in the early days in 2016, they achieved pulse energies of 105 joules with a 10 ns pulse duration using a pulsed diode-pumped nanosecond (ns) solid-state laser with a wavelength of 1030 nm and a repeat rate of 10 hertz. At the time, this was a record for this type of kilowatt laser sources. Later, they increased the pulse energy to 145 joules. Since then, this nanosecond laser with a repeat rate of 10 Hz and 515 nm pulses has achieved second harmonic generation with an energy of 95 J. And the researchers at HiLASE are world leaders when it comes to ultra-fast multi-beam material machining too: one of their multi-beam systems operates with 40,401 parallel laser beams. The multi-beam approach also achieves record figures when creating nanostructures in stainless steel: the system manages an area of 1909 cm2 per minute. Chasing records is of course only part of the wide-ranging laser research which includes anything from basic research to applied industrial laser processes.

ELI Beamlines which are also based in Dolní Břežany is part of the pan-European ELI (Extreme Light Infrastructure) research infrastructure, home to the world’s most intense lasers. It carries out top-level research with the help of four high-power femtosecond laser systems which were specially developed at the Czech site. Whether it be physics, chemistry, material and biosciences or laboratory-based astrophysics: research teams from far and wide come to the site to access the femtosecond sources for X-ray beams and accelerated particles in the facility’s beam tubes and to carry out experiments in them. The large research facility which opened in 2018 has six experiment halls and is set to be expanded with additional cutting-edge laser sources and laser beam tubes.

A sector dominated by medium-sized companies

In addition to the ten universities and research institutions, around two dozen Czech photonics companies are part of the cluster. According to Přikryl, there is a constantly growing start-up scene with various companies being established by the institutions. Small, highly specialized companies are helping to advance microscopy, bioimaging and spectroscopy solutions. These include NenoVision, a spin-off of the Brno University of Technology, which is developing, producing and selling a modular atomic force microscope (AFM) for quick, straightforward integration into scanning electron microscopes. Or Lightigo s.r.o., a start-up which was established in 2019 and specializes in solutions for laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS). Telight is another young and innovative company. The team is developing and marketing a holographic microscopy process with high detection sensitivity which was originally developed at the Brno University of Technology. The process is particularly suitable for the precise automatic segmenting of individual cells and analyzing cell data. The solution converts cell properties and dynamics into numerical data for this purpose.

At the other end of the scale, there are five big companies including the specialists for vehicle lighting Hella Autotechnik Nova and Varroc Lightning Systems and the providers of electron microscopy and other material analysis devices Thermo Fisher Scientific Brno and TESCAN ORSAY. The LASER exhibitor Meopta-optika with around 1,800 employees is another big member of the optical cluster. The specialist for optical, optomechanical and optoelectronic solutions dates back more than 80 years and is looking to expand. Because of a significant increase in demand in the semiconductor industry, the company is adding another 30,000 m² of production space and setting up a cutting-edge research infrastructure and clean rooms. The plan is to manufacture optics there in the future for the wavelength range below 200nm, which is important in lithography. Meopta is also looking to expand its facilities for the production and development of modern infrared optical systems and ultra-precision mechanical components at the company campus in Přerov.

Healthy high-tech medium-sized sector with a long tradition

The LASER exhibitors CRYTUR with 320 employees and SQS Vlaknova optika which employs 245 people and develops and manufactures fiber optic and optoelectronic components are among the larger medium-sized companies in the country. These components include high-precision optical collimators, microlens arrays connected to optical fibers or “laser cables” for transmitting high-energy laser beams in which the company bundles together up to 10,000 optical fibers. This know-how is also in demand at research institutions—SQS is involved in numerous research projects. In contrast, CRYTUR has made a name for itself as a provider of integrated, crystal-based high-tech solutions for scientific and industrial purposes for more than 75 years. The high-tech company based in the precious stone region of Turnov focuses on synthetic crystals—which it grows, carefully cuts, grinds, polishes, coats, and mounts in clean rooms. Its product range includes laser rods made of various materials, precision detectors for electron microscopy and ionizing radiation, high-resolution imaging systems, light converters and precision ceramics and ferrites.

The Turnov-based firms that ground precious stones in the 17th century would be amazed at what has become of their work. For Petr Přikryl, the Czech photonics sector has by no means reached its full potential. “Our cluster is growing. More and more companies are working together. Photonics can take on a key role in the Czech Republic’s innovation strategy between now and 2030,” he said, convinced.