The FET programme is very effective in supporting bold collaborative research proposals and high-quality science, with an eye on future disruptive technology.
The challenge to control light – its propagation and its features – is essential for important current and future technologies, such as laser-based surgery, fiber-optics communication, quantum cryptography and quantum communication, fields particularly central in a world increasingly dominated by data.
Scientists have only recently focused on how to control a specific property of light, called OAM. The results of the FET-Open project Phorbitech have substantially contributed to the advancement of this specific but increasingly relevant research field.
Lorenzo, what were the main scientific and technological challenges of your project PHORBITECH and are they still relevant today?
Phorbitech full title was “A toolbox for photon orbital angular momentum technology”. The OAM is an interesting property of light that can be associated with a helical shape of the optical wavefront and with energy rotational flow around the light beam axis. Light OAM has attracted much attention in the last 25 years in the research community for both fundamental and applied reasons. In the last few years this research field has expanded its scope and is now usually referred to as the photonics of structured light, that is concerned with light having complex phase and polarization spatial structures.
Before Phorbitech, the tools for controlling efficiently OAM and, more generally, the spatial structure of light were limited in many respects. We had the goal of removing such limitations and this has been partly achieved during Phorbitech, with a number of useful innovations and progresses, but the challenge is still relevant today. A recent paper Roadmap for structured light, written by a large group of researchers active in this area led by Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop and Andrew Forbes, tried to identify the key future goals and main ideas for this technology in the coming years.
Could you tell us about the impact of your project Phorbitech on the European citizens?
These have probably been limited, so far. In physical sciences many years are typically needed before the research results get into widespread technology. Some commercial devices exist today that exploit technology that was developed within Phorbitech, but hitherto they only serve niche research-driven markets. Yet, it remains quite possible that some Phorbitech result will have a much broader impact in the near future, for example in the area of optical communication or in the near-eye visor technology that is currently developed for virtual or augmented reality applications.
In addition, Phorbitech contributed to the research training of many young European researchers and to the diffusion among European citizens of scientific knowledge in the area of structured light.
What was the impact of Phorbitech on the research community?
The tools and concepts developed in Phorbitech have had a substantial and long-lasting impact in the research community. For example, the Phorbitech team has published about 140 articles in high-quality science journals, which have received a total of about 5500 citations until today and keep receiving about 700-800 citations per year. This means that every year about 500-600 new scientific papers that refer to Phorbitech results (in some cases multiple times) are published.
What is your experience with the Future and Emerging Technologies EU programme?
It has been excellent! The FET programme is very effective in supporting bold collaborative research proposals and high-quality science with an eye on future disruptive technology. Phorbitech was my first FET proposal and it was financed. After that, I participated in other proposals to FET (not as coordinator), which were not financed. It is very hard to be financed and some degree of luck is certainly needed in the selection process. But it is always worth trying: the experience of setting up a good consortium and a strong proposal can help pushing forward your research even if the proposal is ultimately not financed by FET.
Which impact Phorbitech had on your professional carrier and how did FET contribute to make your research career advancing?
Phorbitech was pivotal in my professional career. In Italy, it is quite difficult to get adequate research funding, while Phorbitech allowed me and my group to get funding for three years. Moreover, it greatly enhanced the links between our group and the international research community. As a consequence, my research output increased significantly, and this allowed me in turn to be promoted to full professor much earlier than I would probably have been. A few years ago, I was also awarded an advanced grant by the European Research Council on a Phorbitech-related topic, and I am sure that this achievement would not have been possible without Phorbitech.