Photonics Technologies for the Low Carbon Economy

By Iain Weir, Director, Optimat Ltd
Spring 2013

Photonic technologies have an important role to play in the development of the low carbon economy. This was detailed in a study funded by DG Connect, European Commission1 that assessed five applications of photonics (photovoltaics, energy efficient lighting, energy efficient communications, advanced sensors and instrumentation and clean manufacturing) to analyse Europe's market position in "green photonics technologies" assess the potential to develop promising new technologies identify potential intervention options that address the barriers to the adoption of photonics.

It is estimated2 that photovoltaics can produce 12% of Europe’s energy needs by 2020 and make a significant contribution to CO2 savings. The potential of photonics technologies to support this is significant. Developments in materials, cells, modules and manufacturing technology are expected to enable electricity generation at lower costs. This has been recognised by the European Commission which has funded a significant portfolio of relevant3 projects. However, the Far East has become the main manufacturing region for photovoltaics.

Energy efficient lighting is a rapidly developing application for photonics. Light emitting diodes (LEDs) are already available for lighting applications and by 2020 are expected to account for over 90% of this market4. In the longer term organic LEDs will be used in numerous lighting and display applications. The key barrier to development is cost and new photonics technologies are important in overcoming it. The utilisation of energy efficient lighting is expected to achieve between 40% and 70% energy savings, thus making a significant contribution to CO2 reduction.

Energy efficient communications are critically dependent on a range of photonics materials, components and systems. Significant demand for increased capacity in communications networks is expected to be addressed by applying a range of photonics technologies. The European industry is in a strong position to address these requirements, based on its recognised manufacturing and research capability. The adoption of these new photonics technologies is expected to enable significantly higher network capacity without concomitant increases in energy consumption.

Advanced sensors and instrumentation contribute significantly to the monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions. Photonics technologies underpin current and developing products. It is expected that these technologies will support better measurement and control and thus reduced emissions.

Laser systems are already used significantly in clean manufacturing and Europe is a major player in both manufacturing and technology development. It is expected that Europe will retain this position and will benefit from wider exploitation of lasers as manufacturing tools in the future.

Photonics technologies for low carbon applications is already a €billion global market and this is expected to continue to grow in all areas. The ongoing use of these technologies is expected to deliver significant environmental impacts. However, a number of barriers to the maximum deployment of photonics technologies have been highlighted and a range of potential interventions to address these barriers have been identified. These interventions are (a) research, development and innovation programmes, (b) subsidised market development programmes, (c) market "re-engineering" and (d) overcoming regulatory and standards issues. The overall focus of the first two of these interventions is fully consistent with the analysis carried out by the High Level Expert Group on Key Enabling Technologies5 while the latter two address specific market related barriers for photonics technologies.

1 - "Photonics and Markets for a Low Carbon Economy", Ref: SMART 2010/0066, DG Connect, European Commission, published 2012 - see
2 - Solar Generation 6 - Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Empowering the World, EPIA and Greenpeace, 2011
3 - Solar Generation 6 - Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Empowering the World, EPIA and Greenpeace, 2011
4 - Electical engineering and semiconductor equipment: Winners and losers in a radically changing lighting market driven by LED, J.P. Morgan Cazenove, March 2010 and Lighting the Way. Perspectives on the Global Lighting Market, McKinsey and Co., July 2011
5 - Final Report, High Level Expert Group on Key enabling Technologies, European Commission, June 2011