It’s tough being a data center these days. Demand for bandwidth is exploding. Every second, two households are connected to the Internet, and the amount of data doubles for each connection every 18 months. In 2016, over a billion smartphones will be sold worldwide, and each device needs access to a data center.

Silicon Valley, we have a problem.

Existing semiconductor technology is unable to keep up with this murderous pace. Unless you think that building hundreds of extra power stations to run more data centers is a good idea, we need a different approach to cope with the growth. Fortunately, technology to speed up the Internet already exists. It’s called integrated photonics, and it’s seeing a lot of movement in Europe at the moment.

Photonics is the science of light. And light, as we know, is fast. Much faster than copper or glass fiber. That’s why photonics can provide the bandwidth, speed, reach, and flexibility needed to cope with the increasing demand for Internet connectivity. The architecture is already being built, and investors are injecting over $30 billion a year in switching equipment to make the new hubs work.

Europe’s lead

As marketing director of High Tech Campus Eindhoven, one of the main players in the PhotonDelta project, a collaboration of tech companies in Eindhoven in The Netherlands that are focused on photonics, I love to brag about the leading role Europe and particularly The Netherlands play in the advancement of this new technology. But the facts back me up.

There are around 200 photonics-related companies and research organizations in the PhotonDelta area of Belgium and The Netherlands alone. As early as 2007, the University of Eindhoven brought together a group of key European players in photonics, connecting them with the four photonics foundries in Europe, two of which are in the Netherlands.

In the US, meanwhile, the photonics industry is quite fragmented and suffers from occasional bumps in the road.

Because of its open ecosystem already in place, including an expert network across the continent, Europe likely has a two-year lead over other continents. To quote tech investor Ray Quintana from the Cottonwood Technology Fund, “To be a global player you require relevant, disruptive technology that’s difficult to duplicate. Photonics in the Netherlands has a head start in this respect.”

Integrated photonics already represents 20% of the global electronics market. The European Commission has identified it as one of six so-called Key Enabling Technologies (KET), providing the basis for innovation across all industrial sectors. The EU is investing no less than $350 billion in KETs over the next three years, with photonics receiving a big piece of the pie. In October 2014 President Obama reserved $220 million to develop an integrated photonics research center in the US. Michael Lebby, a photonics expert working with the University of Southern California, confirmed that this investment is earmarked for catching up with Europe. And in Asia, local governments are investing $4 billion in photonics over the next four years.

Light on a chip

Here in Eindhoven we have been researching photonics since the 1980s. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that we finally witnessed a breakthrough with the emergence of integrated photonics, or “light on a chip.” Using the material indium phosphide, we have been able to build light sources as well as switches and filters into one single chip. (There are no light sources in silicon.)

Now PhotonDelta is building a Europe-wide ecosystem of researchers, chip designers, foundries, and software developers to scale up the technology. The photonics chip, which conducts light instead of electronics, is being developed by Smart Photonics, a startup located in High Tech Campus Eindhoven. Some scientists are already calling it the dawn of a new tech revolution. “It reminds me of where we were with silicon 40 years ago,” says CEO Richard Visser. Visser used to work for Philips but started his own company after Philips decided to get rid of its photonics division.

Visser has just opened a new “clean room” to produce wafers for the new chips, which he supplies to a growing list of customers all over the world, from telecom and data companies to health, aviation, machine, and automotive businesses. He expects to build the first photonics factory within two years.

Airplanes and health care

Not only will photonics solve the bandwidth problem, it also has other far-reaching applications. Photonic chips could be inserted into airplanes to measure the stress on aircraft wings. The technology can also be used to detect gases in environmental, biological, and industrial applications, like real-time human breath analysis for hydrogen cyanide or ammonia. Photonics chips are finding their way into medicine as well, providing “needleless” technologies for monitoring diabetics’ blood sugar levels and powering tiny cameras smaller than pills that can travel within arteries.

However, Internet and communication applications will come first. When the technology has proven itself there, other fields will follow. With the capacity to support Internet speeds of 200 terabytes per second, photonics will lead the world into the terabit era. And it does so very energy efficiently. The way things are going now, by 2021 85% of the world’s energy will be used for data centers. Using light instead of electrons can solve this energy challenge. So photonics is simultaneously reducing the Internet’s global carbon footprint and the overall cost per bit.

Tipping point

The research conducted in the PhotonDelta project has pushed integrated photonics towards a crucial tipping point. The cost of manufacturing a photonics chip has dropped from $230,000 to around $10,000, making the technology available for almost every startup.

The time has come to jump onto the photonics train. Or perhaps I should say the Millennium Falcon, since, after all, it travels at the speed of light.

Bert-Jan Woertman is director of marketing and communications at High Tech Campus Eindhoven, a business hub where 140 tech companies are working on developing future technologies and products.