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Professor David Payne is the Director of the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) and, in 1987, he led the research group which invented the first telecommunications optical amplifier – the Erbium-Doped Fibre Amplifier (EDFA) – an invention that made long-distance optical communication a reality.

Prof Payne said: “Optical fibres created the high-speed connected world, and their outstanding success has been one of our greatest achievements. Without optical fibres and amplifiers, it’s hard to imagine the internet we know today.”

The EDFA overcame the problem of signal fading during data transmission over large distances, even when using highly transparent fibre. Today, virtually every optical fibre is amplified with EDFAs. The EDFA was the result of blue skies research, which was 15 years ahead of its time and was carried out when there was no commercial market for its findings.

The Optoelectronics Research Centre

The ORC was established in 1989, with EPSRC funding, and is now a world-leading centre for photonics, optical telecommunication and high-power lasers, ranging from 10W – 2.2kW.

The ORC has also developed non-toxic glass fibres for use in key-hole surgery and, as a result of ORC research, there has been a 30% increase in the number of surgical stents manufactured with fibre lasers, worldwide.

Currently, there are 700 doctoral level ORC alumni holding senior positions in industry and academia, worldwide. The ORC has now licensed over 30 key patents and regularly collaborates with industrial giants, such as Boeing, Cisco, Sharp and BAE Systems.

Recent developments

In 2010, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Photonics was established at the University of Southampton under the leadership of Professor Payne.

Photonics research has allowed the world to harness the power of light. Lasers and fibre-optic networks power modern high-speed communications and the internet. Laser surgery has revolutionised healthcare, and laser technology is vital to modern manufacturing, generating new industries and new jobs.

The fibre laser revolution

There have been a number of laser developments in recent years that are quite staggering in their simplicity, and so powerful in their operation that engineers and scientists have had to rethink the future of the laser.

Perhaps the most important development is the fibre laser, born out of the revolutionary optical telecoms fibre amplifier, developed by Professor Payne and his team. The fibre laser challenges currently held views on how to make things, how to repair things, and how to destroy things. It is changing every industry and discipline it encounters, as well as emerging as the preferred laser for defence.

Professor David Richardson, Deputy Director at the ORC, said: “Today, fibre lasers are being used world-wide on the manufacturing floor. Fibre lasers are used to cut inch-thick steel, to weld your car during its manufacture, perform delicate eye surgery, or even mark the date on the fruit you buy in the supermarket.”

The combination of small size, maintenance-free operation, thermal and electrical efficiency combined with outstanding beam quality has made the fibre laser a huge success and an attractive alternative to traditional lasers. In fact, in many processes, the fibre laser is the enabling technology.

Unique among high power lasers, the fibre laser is monolithic, the light being entirely confined to the fibre core. This gives immunity to thermal distortion of the beam, almost instant start-up, very high beam stability and protection from the environment. Maintenance is minimal, since no realignment or cleaning of components is needed.

Funding - the key to continued success

Thanks to this continued funding and support from EPSRC, the University of Southampton has been a world leader in photonics research for 40 years. EPSRC investment in basic research is now delivering widespread commercial success and keeping the UK at the forefront of innovation.

A cluster of stars

The achievements of the ORC are so diverse that the resulting technologies have been successfully commercialised though the formation of a photonics cluster that now totals ten companies in the Southampton area, generating revenues in excess of £100m and creating more than 500 jobs.

Specialty optical fibres, originally drawn at the university by spin-out company, Fibercore Ltd, now a Cisco company, are used in most gyroscopes and can be found in commercial airliners, the Hubble telescope and the Mars rovers. These fibres are now manufactured at Fibercore House on the University of Southampton Science Park at Chillworth. In 2001, Fibrecore was named as the UK’s most successful manufacturer by Experion, and has won four Queen’s Awards for Enterprise.

University spin-out, SPI Lasers, now owned by German company TRUMPF, has developed high power fibre laser products that have transformed a wide range of manufacturing processes including diamond bruting, cutting, welding and marking or etching.

Stratophase, another spin-out, has developed products with applications in security, optical circuits, sensing and laser colour conversion.

Now owned by Schlumberger, SENSA sells optical, fibre-distributed temperature sensors which can resolve temperature along the entire fibre length. Applications include power cable protection for North Sea wind farms and oil well monitoring.

Other successful spin-outs include Southampton Photonics, ChG, Fianium and Covesion. Between them, they have won a number of Queen’s Awards for Enterprise and have experienced exponential growth.

For example, in 2009, Fianium won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise following sustained growth of 7%, and opened a new facility in USA. That same year, Point Source won its second Queen’s Award for Enterprise, having increased overseas revenue by 86% in three years, selling £33m of exports.

A shining light

In 2008, Professor Payne was awarded the Marconi Society Prize and Fellowship for his work at the ORC, joining a list of previous winners including worldwide web creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and Google founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Established in 1975, the Marconi Society annually recognises a living scientist whose work has advanced the social, economic and cultural status of all humanity.

 

Other information with highlights included in text above

Funding details

The EPSRC grants awarded to the ORC include:

  • £4,659,975 Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre 2010-2015
  • £5,004,806 Programme Grant 2010-2015
  • £7,179,095 Portfolio Partnership 2004-2009
  • £162,042 Standard Research Grant 2003-2004
  • £254,574 Standard Research Grant 2000-2003
  • £2,056,683 Standard Research Grant 1999-2003

Timeline

  • 1961: University of Southampton begins laser related research.
  • 1964: Prof David Payne enrols at the University of Southampton. Later, he becomes one of the world’s first PhD students in optical communications, and is now director of the ORC.
  • 1966: Work on optical fibres begins at the University of Southampton to explore long distance light communication.
  • 1975: Prof Alec Gambling and Prof Payne’s paper, Zero Material Dispersion in Optical Fibre, pioneers new transmission techniques that maximise the transmission rate in optical communications.
  • 1980: York Ltd formed to commercialise the University of Southampton work.
  • 1987: Prof Payne and his team develop the Erbium-Doped Fibre Amplifier, a key device for internet expansion, as it allows the transmission of vast amounts of data over fibre networks. This led to an explosive growth in optical fibre deployment, worldwide.
  • 1989: The ORC is established with EPSRC funding. It is now a world-leading centre for photonics, optical telecommunication and high-power lasers.
  • 2000: Sensa, formed from the merger of University of Southampton spin-out, York Sensors, and Sensor Highway. Sensa is the world’s leading provider of fibre-optic temperature sensing solutions, and employs more than 100 people.
  • 2000: Southampton Photonics Inc (SPI Lasers) formed, creating 150 jobs. SPI Lasers develops and manufactures high power fibre lasers for a wide variety of marking and micromachining applications creating 150 jobs.
  • 2001: Fibercore Ltd, spun out of University of Southampton research to manufacture specialist optical fibres, is named the UK’s most successful manufacturer by Experion. The company has also won four Queen’s Awards for Enterprise.
  • 2003: Stratophase Ltd spun out to commercialise new ORC research on wavelength conversion and optical biosensors.
  • 2004: ChG Southampton Ltd is spun out of ORC research specialising in cutting edge optical materials for medical and data storage technologies.
  • 2005: SPI Lasers valued at £40m when floated on AIM.
  • 2007: The ‘flat fibre’ – a pioneering optical fibre with greater versatility, developed and patented by researchers from the ORC’s planar optical materials and silica fibre fabrication groups.
  • 2008: SPI Lasers acquired by TRUMPF, one of the world’s leading industrial laser manufacturers.
  • 2009: Fianium, spun out of ORC research, wins the Queen’s Award for Enterprise following sustained growth of 7%. Company opens new facility in USA.
  • 2009: Point Source wins its second Queen’s Award for Enterprise, having increased overseas revenues by 86% in three years, selling £33m of exports.
  • 2009: Covesion formed to develop and sell nonlinear optical technologies.

Key Facts and Figures

  • The ORC files around 20 patents a year.
  • They are currently 700 doctoral level ORC alumni holding senior positions in industry and academia, worldwide .
  • Its annual 200 plus academic publications mark the ORC as an international leader in research
  • The ORC has created world-beating 10W – 2.2kW lasers.
  • The ORC has developed non-toxic glass fibres for use in key-hole surgery.
  • As a result of research carried out by the ORC, there has been a 30% increase in the number of surgical stents manufactured with fibre lasers, worldwide.