Green Photonics: At the Heart of Europe's Innovation

By Commission Vice-President, Neelie Kroes
Spring 2013

In the coming decades, Europe is faced with a number of daunting challenges in the energy field. We now know that traditional means cannot help us deal with them. We need modern tools to tackle modern needs. Photonics is very well placed to help us deal with these energy challenges, as described in Europe 2020, the EU strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth for the coming years.

Green photonics technologies, in particular, are a solution to many of our energy problems. They are used for generating energy (solar photovoltaics). And they are also used for substantially reducing energy consumption, be it in lighting through LEDs and Organic LEDs, laser-based manufacturing or optical fibres and photonics devices for broadband communication networks and large data centres. In practice, this means they generate less greenhouse gas emissions and less pollution than traditional technologies.

To explore all the options photonics can offer, the European Commission is funding many research and innovation (R&I) initiatives under the EU's 7th research framework programme (2007-2013). Our aim is to strengthen the industrial competitiveness and the green technology and market potential of the European photonics industry. The budget for the programme's 7 years is more than €550 million, of which around €130 million will be spent on green photonic technologies (optical communications, lighting, and lasers for manufacturing). Another €180 to €200 million will be spent on solar photovoltaics. With all these R&I initiatives we contribute to strengthening the photonics knowledge base and to creating stronger industrial value chains which require closer cooperation between industrial players and end-users.

And that's not all. We are now in the process of preparing a photonics public private partnership, as part of Horizon 2020, the new EU framework programme for R&I for the period 2014-2020. This will be a partnership between the European Commission and industry (both large industry and SMEs), research & academia, end-users, as well as regional and national innovation clusters. The aim is to ensure Europe's industrial leadership in this high growth global market. In fact, we are particularly aiming at areas like solid state lighting (SSL), photonics-enabled devices for health or optical photonics technologies and systems. These are areas where photonics is driving innovation, where new markets can be created, and where Europe is strong. We expect that this long term investment commitment by both industry and the EU will accelerate Europe's innovation process and time to market, it will foster photonics manufacturing, and ultimately, it will create growth and jobs in Europe. And we also want to mobilise Europe's potential to provide answers for some of the major societal challenges we are facing today, such as in healthcare, in well-being, or in energy efficiency.

There is a long way to go. But the good news is this: there is huge potential in photonics applications. For example, SSL is not just the best lighting solution. It is also a way for us to save up to 70% energy and reduce costs compared to other lighting technologies. SSL can drive innovation in the lighting, construction and transport sectors and offers tremendous opportunities for our businesses - many of them SMEs - leading to jobs and growth in Europe (let's not forget the European lighting sector today employs around 150,000 people). Another example is clean laser-based manufacturing. Europe has a leading position in developing, supplying and applying laser systems for resource- efficient and energy-efficient manufacturing. This is a large market area with continuing growth as laser-based manufacturing is used in an increasing range of applications.

Green photonics is key to providing new and better solutions to many of the challenges we are facing today and in the future. In Europe, we need to build further on our current strengths and translate them into economic growth for Europe and Europeans.