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What is the catch?

SuperLight Photonics - Cees Links

Dec 18, 2023

Reaching for the Holy Grail in laser light sources - What are the benefits and breakthroughs in PIC technology?

How it was

For some time, the medical, industrial, and agricultural markets have recognized the superiority of wideband spectral light sources, such as halogen lights. Unfortunately, halogen lights are spectrally quite "messy" (not coherent). They waste a lot of power; often, less than 1% of the consumed power is used as light, with the rest being absorbed as heat. Additionally, the lifetime of halogen lamps is limited. Not only are individual lamps short-lived, but as an industry, halogen lighting is currently being phased out by legal directive.

In consumer applications, halogen light sources are rapidly being replaced by LED lighting, which offers many color variants. However, in the medical, industrial, and agricultural sectors, the transition isn't as straightforward. The spectrum of LEDs for consumer lighting might be sufficient, but for professional applications, LED spectra are often too selective, inconsistent, and sometimes not powerful enough. So, while halogen lights had their "messy" drawbacks, LED alternatives, though more power-efficient, fall short in terms of usefulness.

What are the alternatives?

For over a decade, a new category of lasers, Super-Continuum Generation (SCG) lasers, has been on the market as an alternative to halogen sources. These broadband lasers offer light sources over 100nm wide, with superior light quality compared to halogen lamps. The light is coherent and the spectrum is stable. Naturally, there was much excitement when these wideband SCG laser light sources entered the market.

However, SCG lasers have their drawbacks. They are bulky, large, heavy, and like halogens, consume a lot of power. These complex machines, though longer-lived than halogen lamps, are challenging to install and operate. Furthermore, they suffer from significant downtime for recalibration. They solve the halogen problem, but with considerable trade-offs.


Enter 2023, and we have good news! Technological progress has enabled Photonic Integrated Circuits (PICs), the photon equivalent of Electronic Integrated Circuits (EICs). While EICs manipulate electrons, PICs manipulate photons, revolutionizing the technology industry. As electronic manipulation approaches its limits (the end of Moore's law), the photonic industry holds vast potential.

One example is the transition from electronic cable communication to optical fiber communication, significantly increasing bandwidth potential. Also, transporting photons requires significantly less energy than electrons, offering the potential to reduce energy consumption in data centers, where over half the energy is used for communication.

Another breakthrough is PIC technology in laser light source products. Where current SCG lasers are large and power-hungry, PIC technology enables the creation of small, light, and power-efficient wideband SCG lasers, capable of running on batteries. This innovation transforms wideband lasers from bulky, power-intensive machines into compact, portable devices, opening up new applications previously hindered by the size, weight, and power usage of traditional lasers.

Moreover, just as EICs have improved quality and maintenance of electronic designs, PIC-based wideband lasers offer similar advancements. The spectral width, quality, coherence, and consistency of PIC-based SCG-lasers are not only superior, but they also require less maintenance, have higher uptime, and longer lifetimes – primarily because they generate less heat.

Furthermore, PIC lasers are more stable as they require less components which introduce noise and they require less maintenance because they don’t need to be aligned as much. Everything can be on a monolithic slab of semiconductor, all within less than a cm^2.

So, what is the catch?

Fortunately, and amazingly, there isn’t one! PICs are bringing to the photonic world what ICs have brought to the electronic world. Consider your cell phone: small, light, battery-operated, with superior quality and uptime. Similarly, wideband, PIC-based light sources are set to replace traditional, bulky, and power-hungry SCG lasers, emerging as an excellent alternative to halogen light sources.

SuperLight Photonics is a leading supplier of wideband, PIC-based lasers and light sources for medical, industrial, and agricultural applications. SuperLight Photonics has implemented Patterned Alternating Dispersion (PAD) for generating fully spectral and time-coherent light in the NIR band (C-band).

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