VIGO Photonics, Poland's IR detector leader, sees future in photonic IC

Misha Lu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

A III-V semiconductor-based detector made by VIGO. Credit: DIGITIMES

With sensor technology becoming increasingly fundamental to a world driven by big data, photonics is also riding on the wave. VIGO Photonics, a Polish company founded in 1987 and specialized in mid-wave infrared (MWIR) and long-wave infrared (LWIR) detectors and modules, sees the fast-growing potential of the infrared sensor market and the need to scale up production, with integrated photonics being a crucial step to reach the goal.

In 2020, VIGO Photonics launched its office in Taiwan, marking its first foothold in the Asian market, which accounted for 19% of company revenues in 2022. At SEMICON Taiwan 2023, the company was also featured in Poland's national pavilion co-organized by the Polish Investment and Trade Agency, Polish Development Fund, Industrial Development Agency and Łukasiewicz Research Network.

VIGO estimates a roughly 20% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of photonic infrared sensor market between 2020 and 2030, rising from US$305 million to US$969 million, driven by main applications like gas analysis, air quality testing, hazardous substance detection and laser control. Simultaneously, VIGO sees the potential for mid-infrared sensors to find more commercial applications, making the development of photonic integrated circuits (PIC) a necessary direction.

"After Covid-19, we see that there's a huge potential to grow the market such as smartwatches, smartphones, IoT and any kind of wearable sensors," noted Adam Piotrowski, VIGO Photonics CEO during SEMICON Taiwan 2023, "we're looking at integrated photonics, where we can combine the lasers, detectors, the waveguide, the interferometers." A photonic IC can include the full functionality of an infrared sensor, and VIGO's estimation sees the photonic IC market reaching US$27.5 billion in 2030, rising from US$5.1 billion in 2021.

"We need to work with partners specialized in signal processing, as that is something that needs to be introduced into our sensor platform," indicated Piotrowski. "With Taiwanese companies, we have a lot to work with to open the microelectronics market to the sensors in automotives." Poland's vibrant automotive manufacturing sector has already attracted strategic investments from major semiconductor players like Intel and ASE Group.

Various types of infrared-based sensors can already be found in a smartphone, such as proximity sensors and retina/face scanners, with more emerging applications on the horizon, including 3D camera, gas sensors, rangefinder and hyperspectral sensors. For the wearable market, infrared sensors will also serve as the foundation of a "lab-on-chip" trend, especially with the development of mid-infrared photonic ICs. When it comes to the automotive market, infrared- and near-infrared-based solutions are also on the rise, such as new-generation LIDAR using vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser (VCSEL), thermographic cameras and various in-cabin sensors deployed. The global VCSEL market, in particular, is expected to reach US$4.5 billion in 2028.

With the EU Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive introduced, infrared detectors based on mercury cadmium telluride (HgCdTe), lead selenide (PbS) and lead sulphide (PbSe) will be banned for industrial applications after July 2024, further stimulating the transition to detectors based on III-V semiconductors. Thanks to its earlier investments, VIGO's offerings now include indium arsenide (InAs) and indium arsenide antimonide (InAsAb)-based MWIR and LWIR detectors as well as indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs)-based SWIR detectors.

Since 2021, VIGO Photonics has been working with various Polish institutes to develop its first mid-infrared PIC on the market, targeting applications like miniature gas sensors, medical equipment and high-end wearable markets. In addition, the company has already developed the technology and production techniques for VCSEL - a semiconductor laser diode comprised of epitaxial layers grown on n-type GaAs or Indium Phosphide (InP) substrates via MBE or MOCVD. To ensure the production capacity for these semiconductor materials, the company is also equipped with a complete production line for photonic products and semiconductor materials, from crystal growth, epitaxy (both MBE and MOCVD), processing to packaging.

Currently, VIGO is taking a multi-pronged approach to strengthen its position in the infrared segments, including initiatives to improve its VCSEL technology and explore the relevant market, in addition to entering epitaxy service and mid-infrared source markets.

When it comes to photonic ICs, VIGO aims to gain a leading position on the PIC for MWIR market while acquiring a significant share of the SWIR-based PIC market. The endeavor includes establishing a complete mid-infrared PIC production line and sees VIGO Photonics launching its EU-backed HyperPIC project that seeks to construct a dedicated foundry between 2023 - 2026, before bringing the PIC into production between 2027-2030, with volume production ultimately underway from 2031.

According to Piotrowski, the ongoing war in Ukraine highlights the role played by sensors in drone warfare. "Right now, VIGO is providing materials used in night vision for all kinds of target recognition, and we are providing a central platform for smart munitions in a war that is becoming more more precise and efficient," remarked the CEO. Military vehicles emit a large amount of heat in the form of mid-infrared radiation, which can be best picked up and distinguished in a degraded environment by LWIR detectors used for missile homing. The same mechanism can be applied to counter-missile systems as well. As sensor technology becomes a key determinant of modern warfare, VIGO's long experience in Polish military industry also serves as a foundation to broaden its presence in Asia's defense sector.