Sentea leverages silicon photonics to develop a cost-effective fiber optic sensor interrogator.
Infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels and dams are subject to internal and external factors causing wear or malfunction. Continuous monitoring of their structural integrity (“structural health monitoring”) facilitates timely detection of damage and allows to perform maintenance based on the condition of the structure rather than at fixed time intervals. A typical structural health monitoring system is based on sensors assessing the condition and environment of the structure. Compared to conventional electrical sensors, optical fiber sensors offer the benefit of reduced size and resistance to harsh environments (electromagnetic fields, high voltages, extreme temperatures, etc.). In addition, whereas each electrical sensor requires separate wiring, multiple optical fiber sensors can be connected by a single cable. Therefore, there is a natural fit with applications where real-time monitoring is beneficial, wiring is difficult and the cost of failure or unnecessary maintenance is high.
Currently, the use of fiber optic sensors is limited to high-end applications because of the high cost of the read-out device, or interrogator. Sentea leverages silicon photonics to develop a cost-effective fiber optic sensor interrogator, making fiber optic sensors more accessible. Silicon photonics allows to reduce the size and cost of the interrogator’s optical components by integrating these alongside electronic components into a single chip.
Sentea is a spin-off of the Photonics Research Group of Ghent University and imec, and the culmination of many years of research. This research group of about 100 people, led by Prof. Roel Baets along with 8 other professors, is a leading authority in the field of silicon photonics. Whereas in the early 2000s the technology was mostly considered a promising academic research field, the last decade has seen its transformation into a commercial success, with applications affecting our everyday life. The Photonics Research Group forms a cornerstone of the burgeoning photonics eco-system in Ghent. This concentration of expertise is increasingly attracting attention from international companies who seek to collaborate, and even set up shop in Ghent. Also a lot of international talent has found its way there, either as a student in the prestigious MSc in Photonics Engineering program (Ghent University and VUB) that Roel co-founded, or as PhD-student or postdoc. As Roel states: “The aim is to further expand this eco-system, and ensure that one of the most prominent photonics hubs in Europe, and even globally, will be located in Ghent.”
In the West, we have more and more bridges that are getting old. There is a serious need to start monitoring those to avoid catastrophes like the collapse of the Morandi bridge from happening.
About a year before Sentea was launched, Karsten Verhaegen - Sentea’s CEO - fully embraced his entrepreneurial spirit and joined the project. Having built a track record of persuading sceptics of new cutting-edge technology, Karsten wants to help propel Sentea to the forefront of the industry. Elaborating on the applications for fiber optic sensing, he explains “A first application is big infrastructure, bridges, tunnels, buildings, etc. Think of the disastrous collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, Italy. It is a reality we face. In the West, we have more and more of these bridges that are getting old. There is a serious need to start monitoring those to avoid catastrophes like that from happening. The new bridge they built is actually fully equipped with fiber sensors, so they can monitor it in real-time and immediately spot it when something is wrong.”
Despite an extensive list of potential applications, the high cost of the interrogator constitutes a big hurdle for the wide adoption of fiber optic sensing. Due to its inherent cost advantages, Sentea can revolutionize this industry. Roel elaborates, “The great advantage of silicon photonics is that you can build on the enormous progress the silicon electronics field has made. You can use existing capital-intensive infrastructure, processes, and platforms, resulting in chip fabrication at incremental cost. Plus, chips benefit from economies of scale, as an increasing production volume drives down costs.”
At the start of Sentea’s journey, the team approached Qbic. Thinking back on this experience, Karsten mentions “When we were preparing the business case, we had open discussions about the market potential. We knew exactly where everyone stood and what their expectations and ideas were, which was very helpful even before we got started. Of course, there is also a whole network surrounding Qbic, Ghent University and imec. If you need things to move forward, you can rely on that network to get you in touch with the right people.”
The slogan of the school where I did my MBA is ‘Dare to undertake’. Essentially, they can teach you anything you need, but you have to dare to go for it.
Finally, to scientists pondering the valorisation of their research, Karsten advises “If you are thinking about it, it means that there is something tingling that you should explore. You should not be too afraid of entrepreneurship. The slogan of the school where I did my MBA is ‘Dare to undertake’. Essentially, they can teach you anything you need, but you have to dare to go for it.”
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