Photonics initiative of South Africa gathers momentum

The South African Photonics Initiative (PISA) - supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) - has recently been established. One of the first projects will be the development of a photonics technician course, given the serious shortage of photonics technicians and artisans in South Africa.

The South African Photonics Initiative (PISA) - supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) - has recently been established. One of the first projects will be the development of a photonics technician course, given the serious shortage of photonics technicians and artisans in South Africa.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) National Laser Centre and the Laser Research Institute at Stellenbosch University are currently driving the PISA project. PISA ultimately aims to stimulate multidisciplinary research, human capital development (HCD), as well as create economic benefits for South Africa via photonics. Interim CSIR Group Executive: R&D, Thulani Dlamini, is leading the CSIR's involvement in the initiative.

Workshop helped in project formation
To this end, a workshop on a national photonics strategy for South Africa was held in Johannesburg on August 5-6, 2008. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of photonics, it was necessary that the strategy drew input from a diverse range of stakeholders and as such the event was attended by representatives from various industries, tertiary education institutions active in the field, government officials, as well as international speakers.

The significant outcome of the workshop was the spontaneous creation of a South African photonics cluster to be led by the photonics industry. The cluster will facilitate networking between the photonics industry and photonics research institutions.

Its activities will be coordinated by a board with the managing director of Carl Zeiss Optronics, Kobus Viljoen, as the cluster chairperson/convenor. One of the first projects will be the development of a photonics technician course, given the serious shortage of photonics technicians and artisans in South Africa. A task team, comprising academia and industry representatives, was created to develop a curriculum for photonics technicians in line with South Africa's industry requirements.

During his welcome speech at the workshop, Dlamini said, "We are here to develop a coherent, comprehensive and multidisciplinary R&D strategy for photonics in South Africa. While the CSIR is currently active in photonics, this mainly involves defence-related research and has had a limited impact on the private sector. Hence, the challenge is to get industries involved and ensure that South Africa is recognised as a world leader in photonics".

Presentations from three experts
The workshop kicked off with presentations from three international experts in the field of photonics - Professor Reinhart Poprawe, managing director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology in Germany; Dr Fernando Mendoza Santoyo, director-general of the National Optics Institute in Mexico; and Dr Robert Breault from the Breault Research Organisation in the US.

Poprawe talked about the European Photonics strategy document titled Photonics 21. He said, "There is huge potential for the photonics industry in Europe. From life sciences and health to the automotive and communications industries, photonics has a place. Further, current global challenges and trends have demanded a rethink into alternative ways of addressing these demands". Photonics 21 was developed by industry and academia. It aims to maintain and expand Europe's leading position on photonics worldwide.

Mendoza explained how the photonics industry in Mexico, is in many ways, similar to that of South Africa and that they are developing a strategy similar to ours. He said, "Ultimately it is about making a social impact. This work must assist in providing a better life for people and this is what we are trying to achieve".

Breault, who made the last presentation, is the father of the cluster concept and is also the chairman of the Arizona Photonics Cluster. He has been involved in the establishment of various photonics clusters from Tuscon to Korea and Australia, among others.

The presentations were followed by intense discussions on the draft strategy document during which both academia and industry representatives provided valuable and constructive suggestions incorporating all their needs. The proposals generated during the workshop will be collated into a strategy for the DST's approval.

The CSIR provides a critical core of laser technology knowledge and expertise through the research, development and implementation of laser based technologies and applications in Africa. This knowledge, housed at the CSIR National Laser Centre, enables the South African industry to improve their global competitiveness and expand their market share. The CSIR National Laser Centre works closely with local higher education institutions and support laser related research at these institutions.

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