After fire destroyed the world-renowned photonics research centre at the University of Southampton, a commitment to rebuild it bigger and better has seen the emergence of a new facility, representing over £100m investment in UK science and technology research
In 2005, one of the UK?s leading photonics research facilities at the University of Southampton was tragically destroyed by fire. Four years on, the facilities are back up and running in a new £55m building.
When the fire broke out at the University of Southampton in the Mountbatten Building in October 2005, it destroyed the university?s renowned fibre and micro fabrication facilities, including the famous fibre drawing tower, designed and constructed by the director of the university?s Optoelectronics Research Centre, Professor David Payne, in the late 1960s.
Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton at the time Professor Bill Wakeham commented: ?This is a huge blow to the individuals who have lost work in this fire, and to the university and the country. This research facility and the researchers who use it are recognised as among the best in the world. ?We are committed to rebuilding and out of these tragic events will emerge something bigger and better.?
True to his word, the new Mountbatten Building now stands proudly in the footsteps of its predecessor, as one of Europe?s leading multidisciplinary clean-room complexes, representing over £100m investment in UK science and technology research.
A view down onto one of the four new optical fibre drawing furnaces recently commissioned at Southampton University. The new fibres to be developed at the Optoelectronics Research Centre should lead to major advances in areas such as the next-generation internet, manufacturing, defence and medicine
Boasting four floors of clean rooms, laboratories and offices, Mountbatten provides flexible research space for world-leading technology development in photonics for the university?s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) and nanotechnology for the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS).
The building?s striking appearance provides a highly visual clue to its purpose. The clean rooms and laboratories that occupy the two lower floors are characterised by the Peano-Gosper fractal etched on the glass panels which enclose the building. The fractal was used in collaborative research undertaken by ORC Deputy Director Professor Nikolay Zheludev and Professor Darren Bagnall and Dr Adrian Potts, ECS. The upper floors housing the offices are visually separated by coloured cladding. With roots dating back to the invention of the laser in the 1960s, photonics researchers at the University of Southampton have contributed significantly to the remarkable growth of the photonics industry over the past 40 years, including the optical telecommunication technology that underpins the internet as well as many solutions in medicine, biosciences, sensing, security and manufacturing.
The new building at the University of Southampton offers ORC researchers over 730m2 of state-of-the-art clean-room facilities and related laboratories to continue their ground-breaking work in photonics. The University of Southampton facilities include clean rooms for research in integrated photonics, silica fibre fabrication and the development of novel glasses.
The integrated photonics clean room is a 200m² Class 1,000 facility with local areas of Class 100, designed for planar processing of a very wide range of materials. The prime purpose of this facility is to be able to take raw materials, ORC-made materials, or commercial materials and process them to realise photonic devices for use in applications from telecommunications to all-optical data processing and from biochemical sensing to the lab-on-a-chip.
The novel glass facilities at the University of Southampton offer a wide range of specialised glass-making and fibre drawing equipment, including a variety of horizontal and vertical tube furnaces, chamber furnaces, high and low temperature ovens, vacuum processing, L-shaped glove box system for batching, melting, annealing and casting of glass under dry nitrogen atmosphere (10ppm), testometric extrusion equipment, hydraulic extrusion equipment, thermogravimetric and thermomechanical analysers.
Occupying over 160 m² of class 10,000 clean-room space the silica fibre facilities contain state-of-the-art fabrication equipment. This includes modified chemical vapour deposition (MCVD) lathes, a glassworking lathe, a six-metre-high dual-sided fibre drawing tower, and dedicated chemical preparation areas for glass etching and machining. The facility is capable of producing standard preforms and optical fibre to a high quality as well as retaining the versatility to fabricate the huge variety of speciality fibres, including microstructured fibres and fibres made from non-silica-based fibres required for research.
The University of Southampton had over 30 optical laboratories put in on the second level supporting research, including fibre characterisation, planar gratings, nanophotonics and metamaterials.
The state-of-the-art clean-room facilities at the University of Southampton will be crucial in the development of a new innovative manufacturing research centre in photonics funded as part of a £70m boost for UK manufacturing announced by Lord Mandelson in January. Announcing the launch of the centres, Lord Mandelson said: ?A highly-skilled, innovative manufacturing sector will be a vital part of Britain?s future economic growth. The £70m funding I?m announcing today will see universities and businesses working together to pull through academic research to commercial products. With more investment to bring these two sectors together we can strengthen our future innovation and growth.?
The EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Photonics will work with industry to develop the next generation of fibre materials and technology platforms, train a new generation of engineers and fuel growth in photonics-related manufacturing. EPSRC have invested £4.7m of funding into the new centre, together with a further £4.6m from 13 industrial sponsors over five years. Professor David Delpy, chief executive of EPSRC, the UK?s largest government agency for scientific research and skills, said: ?EPSRC?s new manufacturing centres will focus on areas of pioneering research that have the potential to create new industries and new jobs for the UK.?
The centre, which opens for business in March 2010, will initially work with 13 industry partners with a view to working with companies ranging from start-ups to well-established firms in the future. The aim is to help UK firms to extend product portfolios and introduce innovative yet cost-competitive manufacturing processes. A role that is critical in view of the high proportion of SMEs active in the UK industry.
Smaller firms often lack the resources to invest in the leading-edge R&D infrastructure vital to maintaining an ability to stay competitive and exploit new markets. In the future, they will be able to harness the state-of-the-art equipment and expertise available at the centre to help them design, develop and test technologies that really can keep the UK at the front line of the global photonics industry. Graduate training programmes and industrial secondments will both play a key role in disseminating the knowledge and skills developed at the centre. As intellectual property is generated, the centre will also look to exploit it, where appropriate, through joint ventures and spin-off companies such as the cluster of ten firms in the Southampton area already commercialising key aspects of ORC research.
Professor David Payne comments: ?The big challenge ahead is to develop new-generation optical fibre materials that can meet market needs, and to identify commercially viable ways of manufacturing them. ?Building on our experience to date, we aim to pioneer new ways of bridging what?s sometimes seen as the unbridgeable gap between academia and the needs of industry. This centre really will give the UK the platform to power ahead into an incredibly exciting future where photonics impacts on almost every aspect of everyday life.? As well as acting as an incubator for large R&D projects, the centre will also be open to smaller commissions, including the supply of optical components including specialist fibres and providing analytical measures ranging from optical powers to compositions and microscopes.
The ORC is already highly-regarded for its supply of optical components to local companies. As one of the world leaders in the design and fabrication of specialist optical fibres they frequently supply companies with fibres drawn in the specialist fibre fabrication facilities.
Optoelectronics Research Centre,
University of Southampton
Tel: +44 (0)23 8059 5169
Fax: (0)23 8059 3142
Added the 22 April 2010 in category Innovation UK Vol6-1