Hoping to help Canadian companies in a variety of industries apply photonics technology to their particular needs, the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations (CIPI) has launched a new program to bring together photonics companies, those in other industries and university researchers.

The Innovative Photonic Applications (IPA) program is designed to identify ways in which photonics and optics companies can help their counterparts in other industries, said Robert Corriveau, president and chief executive officer of CIPI in Laval, Que. It will identify specific needs in several industries, and then match up those companies with Canadian companies and academic researchers who can help them.

The photonics companies will be able to develop products out of the work they do under the program, Corriveau said. Both photonics companies and universities will retain rights to intellectual property arising from their research. CIPI will provide funding to university researchers involved in the projects.

Photonics is the technology of transmitting and controlling light, for various purposes including transmitting data over optical fibre. According to “Putting Light to Work,” a discussion paper on the Canadian photonics sector published last year by the Canadian Photonics Consortium, Canada’s photonics industry is made up of about 250 photonics-related companies, and some 70 government and academic institutions are doing work in this area.

Photonics in Canada is most often identified with the telecommunications industry, where companies such as Nortel Networks Corp. and JDS Uniphase are major players in technologies that depend on it, said Sylvain Charbonneau, director of applications technology at the National Research Council’s Institute of Microstructural Sciences in Ottawa. According to the Canadian Photonics Consortium, Canada supplied 41 per cent of the worldwide demand for optical components for telecommunications at the height of the “optical boom” in 2000. But photonics technology has uses in many other areas, Charbonneau said, from the auto industry to resource industries to health care.

Corriveau said the IPA program will focus initially on four industry sectors: automotive, food, forestry and aerospace.

The program kicked off last week where photonics researchers and their counterparts working with the food industry gathered to discuss possible applications of photonics to that sector. Corriveau said those possibilities include use of laser technology for cleaning and cutting and of fluorescence in inspecting food.

CIPI is planning a similar workshop focusing on the automotive industry in March and one on aerospace in May, he said. In the forestry area, CIPI will be working with a non-profit forestry-industry research organization called Forintek to identify possible photonics applications.

The greatest challenge, he said, will be private companies’ reluctance to discuss with others the problems with which photonics might be able to help them. “It’s very difficult to get this type of information … because they need help but they don’t want to say in what area,” said Corriveau. For that reason, CIPI will start by working with academic researchers in the four industries, and let them take ideas they glean from the workshops back to companies with which they have established relationships.

CIPI was established in 1999 as part of the federal government’s Networks of Centres of Excellence program. It has funded a number of longer-term photonics research projects. Corriveau said projects funded under the IPA program will be shorter-term than CIPI’s traditional projects and focused on very specific problems.

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