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SPIE Professional January 2010

Gloom Lifting?

No one is ready to call the global recession over, but more than a few in the photonics industry have seen some hopeful signs.

Have we seen the end of the global economic downturn? Unemployment is still running high, especially in Europe and the United States. However, industries enabled by photonics technologies have seen glimmers of promise for a recovery in research funding awards, job-training and job-creation programs, subsidy projects, and the like in the last few months.

Government stimulus investments in the energy sector have been particularly robust, but there have been major investments in the biomedical, defense, telecom, and other high-tech industries as well.

In the United States, the Department of Energy (DOE) is awarding $151 million in new funding to small businesses, educational institutions, and some corporate R&D departments to pursue research projects that could fundamentally transform the energy landscape.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu says the funding will come through a new agency within the DOE, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.

"ARPA-E is a crucial part of the new effort by the U.S. to spur the next Industrial Revolution in clean energy technologies, creating thousands of new jobs and helping cut carbon pollution," Chu says.

ITN Energy Systems employee at work in the lab
An ITN Energy Systems employee at work in the lab. The Colorado company is receiving $5 million from ARPA-E to develop an inexpensive production process for solid-state electrochromic film for "smart" windows in energy-efficient buildings.

In the initial round of funding, 37 ambitious projects will each receive an average of $4 million. Among the innovative ideas being pursued:

  • A high-pressure ammonothermal process for producing low-cost crystals for LED lighting
  • Organisms that might produce a flow of gasoline directly from sunlight and carbon dioxide using a symbiotic system
  • Synthetic enzymes that capture CO2 to counter global warming
  • New batteries for all-electric vehicles and for storing electricity produced by sunlight
  • Solid-state electrochromic film for "smart windows"

View a full list of these ARPA-E projects in PDF format.

ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar, former associate lab director for Energy and Environment at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, says his agency has a "fierce urgency" around identifying game-changing innovations for clean, efficient energy initiatives. He told SPIE President Ralph B. James and SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs at a meeting 11 January that dialogue among industry, financiers, venture capitalists, and the technical community will be important in developing new business models to meet ARPA-E goals.

The agency is accepting concept papers through 15 January for advanced research projects in three areas, in its second round of funding opportunities. Research areas are Innovative Materials and Processes for Advanced Carbon Capture Technologies, Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation, and Electrofuels.

The agency is also seeking candidates for a DOE Fellows Program for ARPA-E projects. Fellows will combine business understanding with technical expertise to help the agency create a strategic direction for its transformational energy technology research and development, and will help develop programs as well as engage in independent research.

"The nation that successfully grows its economy with more efficient energy use, a clean domestic energy supply, and a smart energy infrastructure will lead the global economy of the 21st century," Majumdar said in a December 2009 letter to the energy community. "ARPA-E was created to be a catalyst for such a transformation, and to do so with fierce urgency."

ARPA-E is modeled on the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which helped develop and/or commercialize microchips, the Internet, and body armor, but whose funding of basic research has declined drastically over the last decade.

A new DARPA director appointed by Obama, however, wants to strengthen partnerships with universities and other research institutions and is pressing to raise DARPA's budget. "University-based research is an important component of DARPA's future activities," the new director, Regina E. Dugan, said in a statement issued following visits to university campuses around the country last fall.

A few weeks later, the Department of Defense's (DoD) Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) announced it was seeking to fund environmental research and development in the Munitions Management focus area. The development and application of innovative environmental science and technology supports the long-term sustainability of DoD's installations and range, as well as significantly reduces current and future environmental liabilities.

The United States is also getting a 21st century upgrade of the nation's electricity grid. The government will spend $3.4 billion of the $787 billion allotted for economic stimulus on 100 smart-grid projects in 49 states. That includes installation of 18 million smart meters to help citizens manage energy use in their homes; 700 automated utility substations to restore power knocked out by storms faster; and 200,000 smart transformers so power companies can replace units before they fail.

"There's something big happening in America when it comes to creating a clean energy economy," Obama said.

UCF's Winston Schoenfeld
UCF's Winston Schoenfeld. Photo courtesy of Jacque Brund

In other hopeful signs in the United States and Canada:

  • SPIE Member Winston Schoenfeld (above) and the University of Central Florida are getting a $7.5 million research grant from Prime Source Initiative, Inc., to study ways to make photovoltaic cells more efficient in capturing and converting solar energy into electricity.
  • Nate Lewis and SPIE Fellow Harry Atwater of California Institute of Technology are leading a four-year $4.2 million solar-research collaboration with Dow Chemical to develop new mineral-like electronic materials suitable for use in thin-film solar-energy-conversion devices.
  • Zygo Corp.'s Optical Systems division received a multi-million dollar manufacturing contract for advanced helmet-mounted displays for U.S. Air Force jet fighter training programs.
  • The photonics industry in Canada seems to be building economic momentum, attributable in part to a government lab that provides facilities so photonic startups can build device prototypes. A recent sampling of the financial health of 12 startups aided by the National Research Council's Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre concluded that the CPFC services and fabrication facilities will help those companies generate about $500 million through 2014.
Europe: Signs of Slow Recovery?

While Europe's stimulus plan is much more modest compared to America's and its unemployment rate continued to surge in 2009, the European Commission's economic sentiment indicator rose in October to 86 for the full European Union and 86.2 in countries using the euro, up 3.4 points in both areas. Manufacturing capacity also experienced a slight increase, rising from 70.2% at the end of September to 71.4% at the end of October.

Other positive signs from photonics and photonics-related industries:

  • Germany's cash-for-clunkers program lifted Volkswagen sales in the third quarter by 48% even though the economic crisis caused its profits to plunge 86% from the previous year, according to Europe's largest automaker.

  • A survey released in early September indicates the global economic downturn may not have hurt efforts to build a fiber infrastructure in European homes. Telecom infrastructure has been among the chief beneficiaries of stimulus money in Europe. Sweden tops the list of nations rolling out fiber optics technology, with 10.9% of its broadband customers using fiber.

  • A Photonics Innovation Village competition at SPIE Photonics Europe in April 2010 will encourage technology transfer by showcasing new projects from optics-photonics research groups at universities, research centers, and startup companies across Europe. The Innovation Village is organized in cooperation with Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
China: Stepping Up Investment

China has been offering subsidies to citizens who trade in old appliances and cars for more energy-efficient ones, and it also recently announced a major investment of 9 billion yuan ($1.32 billion) in venture capital funds to support high-tech industries.

The National Development and Reform Commission, China's economic planning agency, announced the investments in the energy, environmental, electronics, information, biological, and pharmaceutical industries in October.

Another government plan in China, "Swapping Old for New," has led to an increase in sales of home appliances. The subsidy program has topped 3 billion yuan ($440 million), according to some reports. Under the program, buyers receive 10% off new TVs, computers, refrigerators, washing machines, and air conditioners. A similar government subsidy program to stimulate domestic spending and encourage buying from Chinese manufacturers targets automobiles that no longer meet China's emissions standards.

Separate from the government's efforts in the renewable energy field, a DuPont subsidiary is opening a silicon based thin-film photovoltaic module manufacturing facility in Shenzhen, China. DuPont expects the photovoltaic market will grow rapidly over the next several years due to a surge in innovation aimed at transforming a global petroleum-based economy into one that increasingly and effectively uses non-depletable resources. DuPont expects overall sales of its products in the photovoltaic industry will exceed $1 billion by 2012.

SBIR Update

The U.S. Senate has extended through April a funding bill for the Small Business Innovation Research and the Small Business Technology Transfer programs. The Small Business Administration programs support millions of small businesses and help commercialize many photonics and other high-tech technologies. SPIE leadership has been active in urging Congress to work out a multi-year extension of SBIR.

"SBIR funding has proved to be invaluable to small companies in the optics and photonics industry," according to M.J. Soileau, chair of the SPIE committee on Engineering, Science, and Technology Policy. "In many cases, it has provided early support for technology development that has turned into important commercial products."

OP-TEC Survey: Shortage of Photonics Techs

A survey of U.S. employers, conducted at the University of North Texas in early 2009, at the height of the recession, identified more than 2,100 jobs for photonics techs that need to be filled. This need will increase by 5,900 more new jobs over the next five years.

In a poll of 3,989 U.S. employers, OP-TEC, the National Center for Optics and Photonics Education, also found:

  • Nearly 20,000 photonics technicians are currently employed in the United States.
  • The greatest need for photonics technicians is in R&D and production and manufacturing.
  • The average annual salary of entry-level photonics technicians exceeds $39,000.
  • Technicians with two-year degrees are preferred and their salaries are higher.
  • The 28 two-year colleges with photonics programs (in the U.S.) graduate less than 250 techs per year (less than 15% of the demand).

Have a question or comment? Write to spieprofessional@spie.org  

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201001.08

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