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Supercontinuum promises game-changing new tools for medicine, research, more

Supercontinuum discovery, potential highlighted in freely accessible new multimedia release from SPIE

30 April 2014

Robert Alfano
Robert Alfano

BELLINGHAM, Washington, USA -- A collection of online multimedia presentations is now available celebrating the discovery and application of a significant optical phenomenon, the supercontinuum. The presentations include invited talks published in the SPIE Digital Library and a video interview with a discoverer of the technology published by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

Discovered in 1969 by Robert Alfano and Stanley Shapiro, the supercontinuum has gained intensified interest since 2000 with the development of promising potential and realized applications in biomedicine, communications, and other fields. With important applications already in play, such as enabling more accurate disease diagnostics and studying chemical reactions, Alfano and other researchers envision future applications such as faster computing and data transfer, DNA analysis, and advanced brain research enabling new treatments for stroke, Alzheimer's disease, and other conditions.

Supercontinuum generation refers to the production of broad-spectral-bandwidth, high-spatial-coherence light. It results when optical pulses, such as those found in a short-pulse-width laser, propagate through a dispersive media. Nonlinear effects in the dispersive media act to widen the typically narrow-wavelength laser light, producing an output with a wide wavelength range at suitable power levels for use in such applications as fluorescence microscopy, optical coherence tomography (OCT), and communications.

In a video published this week by SPIE Newsroom, Alfano recalls the initial observation of the supercontinuum in a lab at General Telephone & Electronics Corp. in 1969. While developments were slow at first, the invention of photonic crystal fiber in the 1990s, providing an optimal medium for supercontinuum generation, led to an exponential growth in research publications related to the phenomenon.

There has been increased activity in using the supercontinuum in recent years, Alfano notes in the interview. As an enabling technology, the supercontinuum has led to two Nobel Prizes (Theodor Hänsch and John Hall, 2005; Ahmed Zewail, 1999).

He stressed computing and biomedical optics as important areas for future applications. "There is a lot of room for using light as a probe (in brain research),” he said, calling supercontinuum technology “the next horizon” in the field.

During the Biomedical Optics Symposium at SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco last February, a special session of invited presentations celebrated the 45th anniversary of the discovery by Alfano and Shapiro. That session's presentations are now available on the SPIE Digital Library.

The session was a part of the Optical Biopsy XII conference, chaired by Alfano and SPIE Member Stavros Demos of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Session chairs were SPIE Fellow Robert Fisher (RA Fisher Associates) and SPIE Fellow Robert Boyd (Universary of Ottawa). Anniversary session sponsors were Coherent, Corning, Fianium, Leukos, NKT Photonics, and Thorlabs.

Applications of the supercontinuum include microscopy, OCT, flow cytometry, gas sensing and optical communications. In the video interview, Alfano says that there are exciting possibilities in brain research. "To probe the brain with light is the next horizon," he says. "I think that's where you're going to focus the continuum, because it's the only source that has short pulse, and all the wavelengths."

Alfano is a Distinguished Professor of Science and Engineering at the City College of the City University of  New York, where he has been a faculty member in the Department of Physics since 1972. He is also director of CCNY's Institute of Ultrafast Spectroscopy and Lasers. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the SPIE Britton Chance Biomedical Optics Award in 2012. He has chaired 30 conferences for SPIE, including the annual Optical Biopsy conference at the SPIE Biomedical Optics Symposium (BiOS), a part of Photonics West.

Shapiro died in 1982.

SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1955 to advance light-based technologies. The Society serves nearly 256,000 constituents from approximately 155 countries, offering conferences, continuing education, books, journals, and a digital library in support of interdisciplinary information exchange, professional networking, and patent precedent. SPIE provided $3.2 million in support of education and outreach programs in 2013.


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