In Part two of our series on Packaging Technologies meet Quantum Opportunities, Palomar’s Dr. Anthony O’Sullivan interviews Dr. Andrew Robertson, Research & Innovation Manager at Bay Photonics. Bay Photonics is an independent Photonics IC (PIC) assembly and packaging company located in the South West of the UK in Paignton at the Electronics & Photonics Innovation Centre (EPIC) and works with innovative quantum-based projects from the research/bread board stage through to volume production.
Dr. Robertson is a senior photonics executive with a PhD in ultra-short pulse and non-linear optics. He also currently serves as the chair of the Torbay Hi-Tech Cluster in Torbay, UK. Prior to Bay Photonics, he served as Senior Vice President for G&H Photonics.
Dr. O’Sullivan: Please tell us a little about your background?
Dr. Robertson: My professional life began in the heady days of the telecoms boom and from there I specialized in packaging opto-photonic devices for use in extreme environments. That background, together with understanding the potential of quantum technologies, has led me to my current position today working with Bay Photonics in the development of low-cost packaging for volume production—both for both photonic and quantum devices.
Dr. O’Sullivan: It is interesting that you speak of these two sectors as possessing some symmetry. How do you see their mutual evolution over the next five years or so?
Dr. Robertson: For us at Bay Photonics these two ecosystems have changed markedly, over the past 3 years especially. As a member of the Epic Center, we have seen large numbers of quantum start-ups join the organization, with perhaps a good dozen or more in our local region. At the same time, there has been phenomenal growth in complementary technologies such as silicon photonics. Even after leaving the EU, we are seeing companies open local sites here from Europe, North America and wider afield. This has led to new projects and areas of co-operation to the point that we have added several new staff members over the past 12 months.
Dr. O’Sullivan: Sharing the Epic Center facility as we do, what is your interest in Palomar and the other participants in our local cluster?
Dr. Robertson: Quite simply we are exploring synergistic quantum packaging development opportunities. What has quickened that interest is the fact that, within a very short space of time, we have moved from the packaging needed for the lab, to requests to produce devices in their thousands. It is also interesting that such requests are not restricted to SMEs, but also come from much larger companies who, I suspect, see us as an extension of their R&D departments, but that’s ok!
I have seen a lot of crossover between quantum-photonic device development with optical transceivers, and major companies in this area collectively have a lot of expertise, plus solid practical capabilities that, with cooperation, can help us cross the bridge into quantum packaging within scalable, cost effective parameters. Palomar itself has navigated successfully through the revolution in transceiver technology, which puts the company in good stead regarding packaging for quantum devices. None of us needs to reinvent the wheel.
Dr. O’Sullivan: It seems that co-operative development is a key part of your company’s growth strategy. More particularly then, how do you see that working out with Palomar?
Dr. Robertson: Palomar has pedigree, a knowledge-bank and expertise in micro-packaging solutions built-up over many decades. Bay Photonics can complement this with more focused expertise in exploiting Palomar machines’ capabilities. Together, we can grow in knowledge, melding your optical packaging experience with ours, and direct them both to the development of quantum device packaging. Our two companies can build on standard packaging by developing new hardware and software and make a significant contribution to the sector. That having been said, I can foresee a couple of years doing a lot of proof-of-concept and prototyping.
Dr. O’Sullivan: Looking towards the medium term, how do you see current quantum device trends playing out?
Dr. Robertson: We see a lot of enthusiastic, energetic new start-ups with good financial backing and great ideas, but what I also see is a tendency for the more mundane pragmatics surrounding packaging to be left behind. It is assumed because some difficult aspect of quantum mechanics has been successfully exploited, packaging it in a way that is technically and commercially sound will be the easy part. As you and I know, this is far from the case. Even those products that are most immanent to entering the market in scale—and they are largely photonics based—still face some very significant challenges. That so little information is found about these areas in the public domain, underlines this, as well as the financial rewards that are on offer for those who crack these particular nuts.
Dr. O’Sullivan: Are we talking “super-tricky transceiver optics” with a tweak, or something radically different?
Dr. Robertson: This is an interesting question. I am reminded of the telecom era of the late 1990s when there was a lot of “buzz”. There seems to be numerous parallels here. In particular, we have made swift advances in materials, technologies and systems, but have not kept pace in anticipating what is needed in regards to packaging, with the result that significant over optimism now exists as to how swiftly the packaging stage can be completed. It is not sufficiently appreciated that there is little or no standardization.
This is reinforced by the limited packaging knowledge of those developing these quantum devices, which is more myopic than it was at this stage in transceiver evolution. These companies are great at making devices that “work” but they fail to anticipate further down the line, for example, as how the device is coupled to the fiber. Another example is packaging appropriate to the required operating temperature. Devices may need to be cooled quite heavily to reduce noise, adding considerable cost to the package.
Dr. O’Sullivan: Understanding the challenges of silicon photonics we appreciate that fiber alignment can be heavily problematic, what makes quantum even more of a challenge?
Dr. Robertson: Most current quantum devices rely on single photon emitters, but how do you align a single photon against a scenario where you don’t see anything at all until you are perfectly aligned? There are some unusual techniques, which may offer a way forward, such as solid emersion lenses and resonant micro cavities, but making these successful may require a different and perhaps counterintuitive way of thinking. The good news is that we are all operating in an environment, which is increasingly inter-disciplinary, allowing us to benefit from the convergence of different scientific disciplines. This will definitely expedite the breakthroughs we need.
Dr. O’Sullivan: Given Palomar’s packaging expertise, we are most interested in those quantum devices whose commercialization is expected in the short to medium term. Can you identify these devices from your stance?
Dr. Robertson: In terms of photonic devices, I see two; quantum random number generators (QRNG) because they are good for encryption and gaming, and quantum key distribution (QKD) because it offers unbreakable security against the advent of quantum computing. Remember, it is not a case of if current encryption protocols will become redundant, but when. Personally, I see it as slightly later than earlier, but the problem is, all data we have ever stored on computer will be vulnerable as soon as quantum computing is viable.
Dr. O’Sullivan: The Epic Center is part of a local cluster, which is itself part of a regional cluster, how does this practically benefit the area? How does it rank in global terms, if at all?
Dr. Robertson: This is a hard question to answer succinctly, so let me just throw out three examples: British universities have been developing optical communications since the 1950s. BT has been working on quantum encryption with universities and SMEs since the 1990s and the British government has been investing heavily in the sector since 2010. All this points to our being part a premier league; offering peculiarly advantageous opportunities to those who have the skill-sets to exploit them.
Dr. O’Sullivan: Do you see the future direction of quantum packaging technologies as quite conservative in developmental approach, or more aggressive and radical?
Dr. Robertson: From our stance, I would say something in between. Developers are starting with what is already out there as that is the most logical and obvious thing to do. I would refer again to the crossover with transceivers and other fields of micro-optics. That having been said, we are seeing the beginnings of divergence. The historical packaging need for long-term reliability is falling by the way side, as critical components are now being replaced every 5 years or sooner. I have little doubt that all but high-end quantum technologies will follow this path, though in a rather less linear fashion, with some big jumps in direction.
Practically I see a mixture of proven approaches, openness to new ideas, patience and serendipity. I am interested to know how Palomar would answer this question.
Dr. O’Sullivan: Well, our company has a long history of engaging with new packaging and device technologies—long before they are commercialized. We work with the R&D departments of three of the five top internet providers and the top five defense contractors in the world. This is one of the reasons we opened our Demonstration Lab at Epic, we need to be more on top of our game than ever. As you have said, this is a globally ranked cluster and complements our center in Singapore. I don’t know if you are aware, but on a per-capita basis Singapore and the UK rank first and third respectively in public quantum investment. Being in these two centers allows us to get a strong sense of what is going on, as well as the kind of questions we need to be asking to effectively facilitate the most likely packaging outcomes. Will these require us to add to our machines’ modularity, add new software, or develop an entirely new system from the ground up? More fundamentally, we have to examine our approach to innovation and make sure we anticipate the lateral and extended uses of the packaging technologies we develop. How would you conclude on this point?
Dr. Robertson: I think that there will be certain pains in getting to volume production, but I don’t think there is going to be much in the way of completely new packaging technologies for photonics-based quantum devices. I am a realist though, and appreciate that we could be blindsided by a very, very tricky—but not insurmountable challenge.
Dr. O’Sullivan: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us. We look forward to our work with you and others at the EPIC Center in the coming years. These are exciting times for our sector.
In Part three, we’ll dive into the depths of how to manufacture a quantum package.