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Life Sciences and health 2018

‘Photonics is the new micro-electronics’

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With an increasing demand for smarter and smaller photonic systems, a European conglomerate is building an open-access manufacturing platform for photonic-integrated circuits: PIX4Life.

PIX4life is an initiative of fourteen consortium members and is subsidized by the EU Commission with the aim to mature platforms for photonic circuit integration based on silicon nitride material substrate. It is a relatively new approach within the field, through which the Commission aims to make this early stage tech available for broader adoption.

“Life Sciences and Medtech are prominent markets for the use of the advanced, multi-functional microchips,” says project leader Hilde Jans. “The circuits have very low propagation losses, low auto fluorescence and a high level of integration and complexity, so really compact systems with a multitude of different functionalities can be realized.”

Moreover, they have a wide potential for application, she adds, from diagnostic tests or applications in dermatology, to more accurate alternatives to ultra sound scanning; “frankly in all areas where laser light, lenses, mirrors and photo detecting diodes are used.”

Unlock potential

The development of the technology shows similarities to micro-electronics a few decades back, with the transition from bulky modules to integrated and lean microchips. It has the potential to significantly reduce the size and cost of medical equipment, for example, and to allow the use of microchips in disposable cartridges, since such small components can be produced at massive scale in a cost-efficient manner, states Jans, partly due to the way PIX4Life is organized.

Many companies are really knowledgeable in their field of application, but not in integrated photonics.

Besides focusing on the fabrication of chips, the group of experts behind the project also offers additional services such as biophotonic consultancy, circuit design expertise, software support and chip packaging. “The aim is to create a complete supply chain that allows companies or academia to outsource elements in which they do not have sufficient expertise or for which they lack facilities,” says Iñigo Artundo, CEO of VLC Photonics, that operates as PIX4Life’s independent gateway to the market.

Clients are connected to a dedicated contact person who drives them through the consortium’s different offers and leverages its expertise. “Many companies are really knowledgeable in their field of application, but not in integrated photonics. By providing them with a turn-key solution, we can truly unlock the potential of photonic integration technology for them.”

Building blocks

After two years of developing the platform, the four-year project has now entered its second phase: opening up to the market for validating the platform with selected users. In this phase, demonstrators, developed by project members such as Bosch, Toptica, Medlumics and Miltenyi, show how the generic platforms approach can reduce the complexity of product development.

Bosch, for example, is creating a reliable photonic sensor for external monitoring of body parameters, and Toptica is combining multiple laser colors in single chips for life science applications.

These projects showcase the building block designs and serve as proof of the platform’s benefits, including functional scalability and easier assembly and testing of complex systems. Last but not least, “Joining the platform enables lowering costs,” Artundo says, “because of the Multi Project Wafer (MPW) approach, through which chip fabrication costs can be shared among users.”

Lower barriers

Asked about the goal of the project, Jans says it aims at realizing an open access service for the development of silicon nitride photonic circuits and an end-to-end supply chain, in which specific attention will go to fine tuning the model towards Life Science applications.

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