The Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) has announced it is ready to mass-produce Ormocer-based micro-optics.
It developed the capability and know-how in a European Union-funded set of projects.
The CSEM announced it has honed its production capacity and skills for making micro-optics from Ormocer, the name for a family of organic-inorganic plastics invented and trademarked by the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicates in Germany.
Ormocer is targeted to be used in a wide range of new products that will be exploited by industries as diverse as dental materials to the makers a new kind of paper-thin battery.
The Swiss research institute developed the processes to make very cheap micro-optical elements as part of a research effort funded by the European Commission to promote the use of Ormocer in real life applications in the field of microelectronics.
The Swiss government also contributed funds to the research project.
New opportunity for European electronics industry
According to project coordinator Dr Michael Popall of the Fraunhofer ISC, exploiting Ormocer and related polymers will boost Europe's competitive advantage when it comes to cheaply-produced chips and electronics from other parts of the world.
Even companies that normally compete, Ericsson, Motorola and Bosch, felt able to join the co-operative research initiative because the range of applications is so huge and strategic.
The first commercial application of Ormocer is in the field of dentistry as a superior material for filling teeth, replacing amalgam fillings.
But where the material really has some exciting potential is in a whole new range of electronics or "polytronics", as Fraunhofer calls it.
Ormocer has the transparency, hardness and stability of glass, with the elasticity, surface energy, permeability of silicates, and the toughness of organic polymers.
It can withstand high temperatures even when it is fabricated very thinly, making it suitable for use in electronics.
Compact and integrated optics
Commercial products from the vendors involved in the project are one to two years from the market.
Since the project ended a year ago, CSEM has continued to work with the material and has developed prototypes of Ormocer-based microlenses, among other things.
The lenses have a wide range of applications, including laser scanners, photocopiers, and sensors.
But one of the first products to exploit the mass-produced microlenses will be in new lasers with integrated lenses from Avalon Photonics, a Zurich-based company.
Avalon is a CSEM spin-off that makes optical networking components used in storage area networking (SAN) equipment for the international market.
In an optical network, lasers beam light into fibres that carry the data and multimedia content across and between networks.
Avalon integrates lasers into a semiconductor format that is much more efficient and powerful than standard lasers.
The new microlenses will be used in its next generation of Avalon's component products.
"By integrating the lenses into its lasers, Avalon will be moving towards a lower overall cost for telecommunications equipment subsystems that deploy its lasers," says Mike Gale, who is the head of CSEM's micro-optics research and development in Zurich.
by Valerie Thompson