Modern global telecom systems powered by technology from the University of Glasgow
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Glasgow
Unit of AssessmentGeneral Engineering
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Physical Sciences: Optical Physics
Engineering: Electrical and Electronic Engineering
Technology: Communications Technologies
Summary of the impact
Today's global telecom systems are powered by technology developed at the
University of Glasgow. This technology has been utilised, endorsed and
developed by a series of internationally successful companies,
facilitating multimillion pound investment from across Europe and the USA
for the companies.
Gemfire Europe acquired the University of Glasgow IP and technology and
between 2008 and 2012 launched a range of `green' products with reduced
power consumption. The company's revenues reached $12m annually and in
2013, Gemfire was one of the world's top five planar lightwave circuit
companies. Gemfire was bought by Kaiam, one of the world's market-leading
optical networking companies in April 2013, stimulating further innovation
and investment in the production of high-speed components for the global
data networking market.
The rapid growth of global telecom traffic in the early 1990s required a
new approach to the miniaturisation of components within the optical fibre
circuits that were encircling the globe. At the University of Glasgow's
School of Engineering, two research teams led by Professor Stewart
Aitchison (Lecturer 1990-99, Professor 1999-2001) and Professor Chris
Wilkinson (James Watt Professor of Electrical Engineering, 1992-2005)
embarked on a twin-pronged technology development project, the aim of
which was to replace numerous discrete devices with a single monolithic
device. The research teams included: Research Assistant Mike Jubber
(1996-98) and PhD students Andrew McLaughlin (1995-98), James Bonar
(1992-95), John Bebbington (1990-93), Paulo Marques, Marcos Vermelho
(1996-99) and Jesus Ruano (1996-99).
From 1993, Aitchison and Professor John Arnold (Lecturer 1985-94,
Professor of Applied Electromagnetics, 1994-2012), funded by EPSRC
(GR/H85311/01 1993-96) and in collaboration with British Telecom,
developed devices utilising flame hydrolysis deposition techniques
(FHD)[1,2, P3]. FHD was an existing technology used to build
microstructures on silicon but which lacked the precision required for
optical componentry. In parallel, Wilkinson led a second research group
developing microfabrication technology including advanced deep etching
techniques. This permitted Aitchison and Richard De La Rue (Professor,
1986-present) to make significant progress in the use of FHD [P2] and the
associated semiconductor processing required to create advanced planar
lightwave circuits (PLCs) [3, 4] (EPSRC (GR/K24963/01 1994-97). PLCs are
key components of functional devices used in optical fibre communication
systems. Compared with bulk optics devices, they offer compactness,
excellent stability and reliability in addition to high functionality.
This research resulted in several publications and four patents which were
licensed to the start-up company Kymata, formed in 1998.
Aitchison and his team developed FHD technologies so that layers of
sufficient quality to make high-performance Arrayed Waveguide Gratings
(AWG) could be deposited on silicon [P4]. Wilkinson and his team used
their advanced microfabrication technologies to manufacture these
components. An AWG is a PLC-based component and they are now pervasive in
optical telecommunications networks, used to physically combine and
separate optical channels, enabling multiple channels from a single
optical fibre thereby increasing the transmission capacity of optical
networks considerably. This technique is known as Wavelength Division
Multiplexing (WDM). AWGs have a number of advantages over competing
technologies to perform the task of WDM that has led to them being
ubiquitous in modern global telecom systems.
A key output of the collaboration between the FHD and microfabrication
research groups was a technique for deep vertical etching of flame
hydrolysis deposited high silica glass films [P1]. The work was initiated
through a feasibility study with Lucas Advanced Engineering Centre in 1994
and the technique (which proved key to the development of low power
optoelectronic components), was fully verified in 1998 .
From 1997-1998, Professor John Marsh (Lecturer 1986-96, Professor of
Optoelectronic Systems 1996-present) worked with Aitchison on building
this PLC capability and utilising the newly developed FHD techniques .
The research was influenced by the drive for improved performance of
photonics in the aerospace sector and resulted in the demonstration of a
number of devices and subsystems including AWGs.
References to the research
 J.R. Bonar, J.A. Bebbington, J.S. Aitchison, G.D. Maxwell and B.J.
Ainslie, Low threshold Nd-doped silica planar waveguide laser, Electronic
Letters, 1994, Vol. 30, No. 3. doi: 10.1049/el:19940190.
 J.R. Bonar, J.A. Bebbington, J.S. Aitchison, G.D. Maxwell and B.J.
Ainslie, Aerosol doped Nd planar silica waveguide laser, Electronics
Letters, 1995, Vol. 31, No. 2. doi: 10.1049/el:19950086.
 J.R. Bonar, M.V.D. Vermelho, A.J. McLaughlin, P.V.S. Marques, J.S.
Aitchison, J.F. Martins-filho, A.G. Bezerra-Jr., A.S.L. Gomes, Blue light
emission in thulium doped silica-on-silicon waveguides, Optics
Communications, 1997, Vol. 141, pp.137-140. doi: 10.1016/S0030-4018(97)00233-2.
 A.J. McLaughlin, J.R. Bonar, M.G. Jubber, P.V.S. Marques, S.E. Hicks,
C.D.W. Wilkinson, J.S. Aitchison, Deep,
vertical etching of flame hydrolysis deposited hi-silica glass films for
and bioelectronic applications, Journal of Vacuum Science &
Technology B, 1998, Vol. 16, Issue:4, pp. 1860-1863, doi: 10.1116/1.590098.
 M.V.D. Vermelho, M.T. de Araujo, E.A. Gouveia, A.S. Gouveia-Neto,
J.S. Aitchison, Efficient and thermally enhanced frequency upconversion in
Yb3+ -sensitized Tm3+ -doped silica-on-silicon buried waveguides excited
at 1.064 µm, Optical Materials, 2001, Vol. 17, pp.419-423. doi: 10.1016/S0925-3467(01)00064-7.
The patents involved are:
[P1] J. M. Ruano-Lopez, J R. Bonar, A. J. McLaughlin, P.V. Da
Silva-Marques, C.D.W. Wilkinson, M. G. Jubber, and J. S. Aitchison
`Reactive ion etching (RIE) process used for the fabrication of an optical
waveguide with low surface and sidewall roughness.' Patent Numbers:
WO200059020-A; EP1166341-A; GB2348399-A; WO200059020-A1; AU200035685-A;
GB2363361-A; EP1166341-A1; GB2363361-B
[P2] P.V. Da Silva-Marques, J R. Bonar, A. J. McLaughlin, and J. S.
Aitchison `Burner for manufacturing aerosol-doped waveguides includes
inlet ports connected to respective torch conduits and gas expansion
chamber provided between at least one inlet port and gas mixing region.'
Patent Numbers: WO200046162-A; EP1150925-A; WO200046162-A1; GB2346683-A;
AU200023084-A; EP1150925-A1; GB2363637-A; GB2363637-B
[P3] P.V. Da Silva-Marques, J R. Bonar, and J. S. Aitchison `Optical
waveguide has photosensitive doped core and upper cladding layer' Patent
Numbers: WO200046619-A; EP1151333-A; WO200046619-A1; GB2346706-A;
AU200023077-A; EP1151333-A1; GB2363474-A; GB2363474-B
[P4] P.V. Da Silva-Marques, J R. Bonar, and J. S. Aitchison `Waveguide
for optical circuit has a rounded, elliptical or circular core obtained by
isotropic diffusion of dopants in a core layer of phosphosilicate wafer.'
Patent Numbers: WO200046618-A; EP1151332-A; GB2346452-A; WO200046618-A1;
AU200023076-A; EP1151332-A1; GB2362963-A; GB2362963-B
Details of the impact
The University of Glasgow has developed an integrated suite of
microfabrication processes that now sits within the photonic systems at
the heart of today's global data transmission networks.
Commercialisation of silicon planar waveguide technology and associated
fabrication techniques began in 1998 with the formation of spin-out
Kymata, an optical components company based in Livingston, Scotland.
Kymata licensed IP, including a range of patents, from the Universities of
Glasgow and Southampton. The company grew rapidly and was successful in
securing multimillion pound venture capital backing from investors across
Europe and the US. In 2001, it was bought by French company Alcatel
Optronics for more than $119m; Alcatel Optronics was subsequently taken
over by Avanex in 2003.
The US-based company Gemfire acquired Avanex and the associated
Livingston plant in 2004. The University of Glasgow technology has been
used by Gemfire since then in both manufacturing and R&D, underpinning
product development and supporting market growth in the area of optical
component integration. The technology base has been used to develop planar
lightwave circuits (PLCs) that are compact, stable and reliable. These
products have played a significant role in the building of optical data
transmission capacity to meet demand caused by the explosion in video over
Gemfire has continued to develop their portfolio using the flame
hydrolysis deposition techniques (FHD) and deep vertical etching
technology research from the University of Glasgow. The technology base
allowed a new, greener range of Arrayed Waveguide Grating (AWG) products
with low power consumption to be introduced in 2008 - Gemfire's `athermal'
AWG. The athermal AWG gained significant market share as the design is
temperature-insensitive and requires no electrical power, reducing overall
system power requirements.
Gemfire added six new products to the athermal range in April 2012,
followed by a further two PLC-based product families in August 2012. These
offer higher channel count, and narrower channel spacing for long
haul/metro systems; and lower channel count, wider channel spacing for
access and datacoms applications. The VP for Sales & Marketing (PLC
Products), Kaiam Corp., stated that `these new products have enabled
Gemfire to increase market share in the telecom market, and also to
attract new customers in the adjacent metro and datacom market segments.'
Based on the athermal platform, the company's revenues reached $12m
annually and the company went through a period of recruitment, with staff
numbers at the Livingston operation increasing from 19 in 2004 to around
70 in 2013. In 2013, Gemfire was one of the world's top 5 PLC companies.
In April 2013, Gemfire was acquired by Kaiam Corporation (http://www.kaiamcorp.com)
a California-based developer and manufacturer of innovative components
primarily for the optical interconnect market, in a multimillion dollar
deal. Kaiam acquired the company to access their PLC technology and
Gemfire's 8-inch wafer fabrication facility in Livingston. Kaiam now plans
further investment to build production of high-speed optical modules for
the global data networking and datacentre markets.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Corroborating commercial and innovation impact