Tue | Jun 30, 2015

UWI rebrands school of science - Eyes optics for industrial applications

Published:Sunday | March 10, 2013
This image shows the Optical spectroscopy set-up, which includes the ultraviolet light source (green box), spectrometer (blue box), and fibre optic probe.
Dr Kert Edwards, optical scientist/engineer and UWI Mona lecturer in the Department of Physics, explains the optical spectroscopy set-up. - Photo by Colin Hamilton/Freelance Photographer
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Avia Collinder, Business Writer

The University of the West Indies has rebranded and restructured its three departments of Science in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad as it positions to commercialise its R&D creations.

The university hopes to leverage its innovations into money-making ventures that will, in turn, provide a new pool of resources for continuous research and development of saleable applications.

The fields under exploration in Jamaica are optics, which deals with the study of light; and photonics, the study of individual particles which make up light - with lead research and lecturer in the Department of Physics at UWI Mona, Dr Kert Edward, in charge of the initiative.

Edwards told Sunday Business that the faculty of Pure and Applied Sciences have been rebranded at the Mona, Cave Hill and St Augustine campuses as the Faculty of Science and Technology with the aim of reflecting a "renewed commitment to driving the technical
innovations which will sustain the region's growth in this new global
and technology-driven economy".

UWI Mona was among 25
organisations worldwide to recently receive a grant from the Society of
Photographic Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) to establish an optics
curriculum and to introduce the field to high school, pre-university and
undergraduate students.

SPIE is touted as the largest
optical society worldwide.

Edwards says he foresees,
along with optics, "the development of technological innovations at the
research institutions and universities in the region. This would ideally
lead to spin-off companies and centres working closely with academia to
develop and exploit the novel technologies for economic gain," he
said.

Still, Edwards' programme is just starting,
having got under way towards the end of 2012. He has nothing exciting to
show, but said a couple of possibilities are in the
pipeline.

In the United States alone, lasers have
accounted, he said, for US$1 trillion in output from the transportation
industry, US$2.5 trillion from the biomedical section and US$4 trillion
from telecommunications, ecommerce, and information
technology.

"The opportunities for employment and
economic sustainability are therefore quite significant. A highly
technically literate workforce could potentially make it more profitable
to move technology jobs to Jamaica and the region instead of India and
China," said the scientist.

"It is also worth noting
that innovations developed in one area can and often drives growth in
disparate sectors."

Fibre optics
technology

Optics is a branch of physics which deals
with light and its properties while photonics primarily involves the
investigation and application of phenomena related to the particle
nature of light. Much of telecommunications systems are based on fibre
optics technology.

In industrial applications, Edwards
said that optical fibres are lighter and more durable than copper wire
and allow for greater information transmission per fibre, in addition to
the potential for impenetrable security in the form of quantum
cryptography.

In medicine, high-power laser systems
are currently being used as "laser scalpels" in delicate surgery or for
destroying tumours.

CDs, DVDs or Blu ray players
transmit sound and video information via embedded discs read by
reflected beams from a diode laser.

"The ubiquitous
cell phone, digital camera, flat-screen TV and tablet PC all rely quite
heavily on optical engineering technology. In the case of cell phones,
apart from being supported by a fibre-optic network, the digital camera
component which is essentially standard on contemporary devices consist
of miniature optical components such as lenses, an optical image sensor
and led flashlight," Edwards says.

The spin-offs from
optics include portable and consumer audio/video devices such as disc
players, tablets, PCs and flat-screen televisions, telecommunications
equipment, biomedical devices, industrial and commercial laser systems,
low-cost lighting solutions and efficient energy collection regimes for
solar panels and photovoltaic devices, to name a
few.

"It is, therefore, clear that this is a
multibillion-dollar, perhaps multitrillion-dollar industry. Admittedly,
it will be very difficult to compete with large international companies
on the manufacturing front. Instead, we need to focus on developing
innovative technologies which will both reduce cost and add value to the
final product, with the ultimate goal of licensing," Edwards
said.

He notes that the US company Tessera generates
most of its revenue using this model.

"Two examples of
technologies that are licensed out by this organisation to
international conglomerates such as Samsung and Sony include miniature
cameras for smartphones and auto-focusing mechanisms for cell cameras.
In 2012, total revenue for Tessera stood at US$234 million of which
US$193 million was due to intellectual property revenue," the physicist
said.

He said that the initial investment in terms of
initiating research programmes across Jamaica would probably require
US$100,000 per institution per year, over at least a 10-year
period.

Additional capital would be required towards
the end of this period as centres and companies "spin off" from the
research, he said.

However, only the most promising
technologies would ever get to this point.

"It is
worth mentioning that it is not uncommon for patents and licences to be
acquired during the original research stage at the university/research
institution, so this model is potentially self-sustaining after only a
few years," said Edwards.

The lecturer was
instrumental in UWI being awarded the SPIE grant, through which he hopes
to introduce students to optics and photonics while increasing their
awareness of the potential applications.

Opportunities
for employment, growth

For Jamaican industry, Edward
notes that the broad applications include opportunities for employment
and economic growth, noting that Professor Cardinal Warde of MIT who is
the current director of the Caribbean Science Foundation has often
expressed the same sentiment.

"Another implication for
the country is the development of a new education system with a strong
emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics to support
the technological revolution. Since we are starting essentially from
scratch, the main area of investment should be in research," said the
scientist.

"It is imperative that we in the region
start to move away from the myopic mindset of primarily addressing
regional scientific concerns to also addressing the world's scientific
problems."

Noting that R&D requires a
substantial investment in applied research, and that Caribbean
governments are not exactly awash with cash, Edwards said part of the
solution will involve a much stronger synergy between academia, industry
and international research institutions to engage in collaborative
research and grant application.

The region, he states,
is not short of intellectual capital.

"Quite a few of
my contemporaries from high school and college are currently employed
as programmers, engineers and scientists at some of the top companies in
the world, including Intel, Google, Microsoft, NASA and Sony," said
Edwards.

"That does not take into account the even
larger number of Caribbean nationals employed at these and similar
organisations unbeknownst to me. The fact is that we are already driving
the innovation process outside of the region," he
said.

business@gleanerjm.com