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Light years ahead: EU research and innovation projects show how photonics will shape the future

Photonics – the science of generating, controlling and detecting light – is the future. Just as the 20th century depended on the electron to witness advances in electronics and electricity, the 21st century relies on the photon to propel many scientific breakthroughs in different fields. This CORDIS Results Pack illustrates how photonics pushes the frontiers of science and ultimately improves our daily lives.

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Where today's conventional technologies are approaching their limits in terms of speed, capacity and accuracy, photonics offers unique solutions. It can revolutionise medicine by enabling quick, sensitive and accurate detection. Light-based technologies can also enhance energy conversion and conservation, lighting and high-quality manufacturing.

Photonics’ prominent position on the European agenda

The European Commission has long recognised the potential of photonics to enhance innovation across several industries. In 2009, the Commission defined photonics as one of five European key enabling technologies of this century and invested in this area EUR 700 million through the research and innovation programme Horizon 2020. The European Research Council (ERC), set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. As part of the Horizon 2020, the overall ERC budget from 2014 to 2020 is more than EUR 13 billion. The ERC operates according to a ‘bottom-up’ approach, allowing researchers to identify new opportunities and directions in any research field. To date, the ERC has funded over 9 000 research projects across all fields, including photonics, and has become a benchmark for excellent research.

Showcasing innovative ERC research

This CORDIS Results Pack features 10 of the most promising photonics projects funded by the ERC. Literally fundamental support for the vitality of this economic activity and sustainable in the long-term is the bottom-up, blue-sky research funded by the ERC, as shown by the projects mentioned below. INsPIRE is working to produce a low-cost, chip-scale, portable, mid-infrared photonic system that can sense molecules to understand the behaviour of living systems or engineered materials. BrightSens is synthesising novel superbright fluorescent nanoparticles for biomolecule detection. In a similar vein, ABLASE generates coherent light using a single engineered living human cell and green fluorescent proteins. AXSIS is working to produce ultrafast electron and X-ray flashes to explore how complex reactions in biochemistry are initiated. Drawing inspiration from nature, SeSaMe is fabricating photonics structures based on naturally abundant biopolymers, paving the way for the sustainable fabrication of optical devices. Another project, INTERACT, is pioneering a novel approach based on liquid crystals containing nanometre-scale fibres to produce soft, flexible materials that integrate smart functionalities for wearable photonics. For efficient sunlight energy conversion, the TripleSolar project synthesised organic molecules that can efficiently convert the Sun’s energy into hydrogen fuel. In QnanoMECA, researchers aim to levitate nanoparticles with a laser in a vacuum chamber, an advance that could lead to new types of sensors and allow for studies in quantum mechanics. SCEON is developing a scanning electron microscope to investigate how light interacts with electrons at the nanoscale. The technique can be applied in photovoltaics, solid-state lighting, quantum communication and metrology. Finally, FoQAL is producing nanophotonic interfaces that promise to reveal quantum phenomena between light and atoms never witnessed before. The projects featured in this Results Pack are just a few examples of how photonics can change technology and affect our daily lives. Photonics is expected to create exciting new opportunities in the future, exceeding the limits of what can be achieved through conventional technologies.