Tech firms urged to focus on electromagnetics

Optical switches, advanced CCTV, chip manufacturing by laser, and medical smart tags that take advantage of the electromagnetic spectrum could be worth £8bn to the UK within a decade

UK technology companies could generate billions of pounds by developing products that take advantage of the electromagnetic spectrum.

A report published last week identified a clutch of applications based on electromagnetic energy that have the potential to be major money-spinners in the future. The UK government, which produced the report, is keen for firms to start innovating in these areas now.

"The UK has an outstanding scientific track record across the electromagnetic spectrum but we need to get better at exploiting this expertise," said communications and e-commerce minister Stephen Timms.

"Some of the new technologies highlighted in this report could prove revolutionary for areas such as healthcare, security, manufacturing and communications."

The report highlights four key areas: optical telecoms switches that would be much faster than current networks which use electric signals for routing and data storage; advanced CCTV cameras that would "search" people remotely by monitoring electromagnetic emissions; techniques to manufacture tiny chips using light, and smart medical tags that could replace today's radioactive markers used by doctors to monitor a patient's insides.

The government estimates that by 2014, the UK's share of the optical-switch market will be worth £300m, compared to £250m for non-intrusive imaging, £3bn a year for miniature chip manufacturing, and £4bn per year for smart medical tags.

Optical communications, in which equipment sends information encoded as pulses of light, is an area of active research into bypassing the limits of electrical data transmission. The gear to handle the optical signals, however, is expensive and complicated, and optical technology is used chiefly in long-distance communication lines.

Optical switches transmit information as pulses of light, unlike today's standard routers and switches, which use electrons. The networking industry has been working on commercial optical switches for several years, but with only limited success to date. Moving to optical switches would help speed up networks, and could help to support broadband connections that are much faster than those on offer today.

Having identified these key areas, the government now wants companies to realise these potential rewards. It will soon hold an event where the findings will be explained to venture capitalists, in the hope of encouraging them to provide funding for technology companies who want to exploit these electromagnetic techniques.

Click here to read the full report.