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SPIE Professional magazine

Photonics for a Better World

Illustration, SPIE Photonics for a Better World

Optical and photonics technologies — and the people who work with them — have brought tangible social, environmental, health, and economic gains to humanity. They bring inexpensive and efficient alternative energy to rural and developing areas without access to electricity and help people to see, hear, communicate, and live healthier lives.

Laser technologies and other optical and photonics technologies have lead to the growth of the entertainment industry and instant communications at home and in space. Food inspections, medical imaging, wearable optic devices like Google Glass and Kinect, and community security also rely on photonics technologies.

SPIE partners with researchers, educators, and industry to advance light-based research and technologies for the betterment of the human condition.

Learn more from SPIE Professional about how SPIE members and others in the field are employing Photonics for a Better World.

Also find more stories on the Photonics for a Better World blog

SPIE Professional / 2017

SPIE Professional / 2016

SPIE Professional / 2015, the International Year of Light

SPIE Professional / 2014

SPIE Professional / 2013

  • Eye Tracking: Once mainly a topic discussed only by academics, advertisers, and behavioral researchers, advances in eye-tracking technology now enable assistive communication for the disabled and open pathways to innovation.

image for eye-tracking technology article

  • Lion Lights: An 11-year-old Kenyan boy finds a bright solution to the problem of lions attacking cattle. An automated lighting system using flashing LEDs safely keeps the predatory lions away — and helps support the tourism economy as well.



SPIE Professional / October 2012

  • Sustainable Energy for All: Those in the field of optics and photonics are helping to provide adequate, sustainable energy for everyone without destroying the planet.
  • New biosensing conference in Japan in 2013: SPIE is organizing the first international conference on Sensing Technologies for Biomaterial, Food, and Agriculture (SeTBio).



SPIE Professional / July 2012

  • Eco-metamaterials: Engineered nanomaterials may be more "sustainable" than those found in nature.
  • Trio of Tests for Cancer: A new approach to breast-cancer imaging uses modified military IR-scanning techniques in combination with two other tests as an alternative to traditional mammography.
  • Crisis Mapping: Relief workers on the ground get advance information about humanitarian crises from satellites.



SPIE Professional / April 2012

Japanese charactersRebuilding in Japan with Photonic Polymers: A group of scientists propose photonic polymer fibers be used in reconstructing communication systems after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. A resilient communications network is an indispensable lifeline for social and economic activities and human bonding, especially during major catastrophes.

SPIE Professional / January 2012


SPIE Professional / October 2011

  • Light on Human Rights: Jonathan Drake, senior project coordinator for the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, writes about how remote-sensing technologies are being used to bring attention to human rights problems across the globe.
  • Monitoring Crops from Space: A future space mission may deliver new methods of monitoring crops from space, delivering essential information to improve agricultural practices, estimate crop acreage, and forecast yields.
  • Satellites Keep Seas Safe: The European Space Agency is looking into how organizations can better share satellite data to improve maritime-surveillance system.

SPIE Professional / July 2011

  • Thirst for the Sun: When two business students from Chile, a "Lost Boy" of Sudan, and an optical engineering student got together at the University of Rochester, they developed a business plan for a company that aims to build inexpensive solar water pumps for drought-prone developing regions in South America and Africa.
  • AquaBioTox Monitors Water Quality: German scientists develop a one-minute warning system for hazards in public water supplies.
  • Radar Detects Concussions: Three Georgia Tech researchers have developed a screening method to determine the effects of concussions.
  • Solar Powered Drinking Water: A solar-powered water treatment system could provide clean water to more than one billion people.
  • President's Letter: 2011 SPIE President Katarina Svanberg discusses the support that SPIE provides for green photonics.

SPIE Professional / April 2011

  • Creativity FIRST: American entrepreneur and Segway inventor Dean Kamen advocates for the next generation of science and technology to solve the world's problems. 
  • Devices for Clogged Arteries Advance: Canadian researchers have proposed a new optical tool for angioplasty balloon manufacturers that could ultimately lead to better treatment of clogged arteries.
  • Better Imaging for Disease Detection: Optics and photonics researchers have developed two new biomedical imaging technologies that improve brain scans and mammography in 3D.
  • Priming the Biophotonics Pump: Biophotonics researchers get help with technology transfer at Biophotonics Startup Challenge.

SPIE Professional / January 2011

  • Lasers in Medicine: Over the past half century, lasers have found their way into ophthalmology, oncology, cosmetic surgery, and many areas of medicine and biomedical research.
  • Collaborating for Cures: SPIE President Katarina Svanberg says collaboration among scientists has led to advancements in biomedical optics applied to oncology and other medical specialties.
  • Electronic Sensors As Skin: Two groups of researchers in the USA are a step closer to achieving artificial skin.
  • Sensors for Bionic Limbs: Researchers at Southern Methodist University are working on improved prosthetic devices.
  • News Briefs: Optical and photonics technologies have improved and restored vision to people with degenerative eye conditions and are used in water reclamation projects.

SPIE Professional / October 2010

Eyeborg project imageNews briefs cover recent research on implants, neurostimulators, and bionic devices to restore vision to people with significant vision loss; the importance of space imagery for dealing with natural disasters on Earth such as occurred with the 2010 floods in Pakistan; a coating for surgical instruments that kill staphylococcus; and the emergence of light pipes to bring more natural light into homes and offices.

SPIE Professional / July 2010

  • Optics researchers at Rice University in Texas are developing disease-detection tools such as a portable inverted-fluorescence and bright-field microscope for the developing world. More
  • The world's most advanced remote-sensing technologies and imaging systems help monitor the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. More
  • Laser bonding is showing promise as a technique to close wounds and surgical incisions. Open access article

SPIE Professional / April 2010

Photonics for a Better WorldOne way SPIE members and friends are making the world better is through sophisticated imaging systems used to support earthquake relief and reconstruction efforts, most recently in Haiti. Optical instruments are also helping with the response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, flooding in Tennessee, and the volcanic ash from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Our expanded series in the April 2010 issue of SPIE Professional also covers the portable, handheld ultrasound machines that can make healthcare more accessible and a new, artificial flexible "skin" for robots that could enhance feedback to human surgeons. Learn about the first germanium laser, which could lead to cheaper and more efficient optical communication systems, and students at the Winter College on Optics and Energy learning about developments in solar energy conversion and structures for light harvesting. More

SPIE 2010 President Ralph James also writes about the important work being done by optics and photonics professionals to meet the many challenges that face our society. He says this can only continue if we increase education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. More

SPIE Professional / January 2010

The Photonics for a Better World series in this issue focuses on technologies used to detect gas leaks, help people hear, protect against skin cancer, and produce amazing artwork. More

SPIE Professional, adaptive optics technologies illustrationAdaptive Optics: Another important article in this issue discusses advancements in ophthalmic medicine using adaptive optics technologies originally devised for military and astronomy applications. David Williams and his group at the University of Rochester (USA) became the first to successfully use adaptive optics technology to correct most of the eye's aberrations so as to image the living human eye at high resolution. Williams' team was the first to image individual photoreceptor cells in the living eye, and in 1997, he obtained the clearest pictures ever of the photoreceptors with adaptive optics. Williams was able to image and identify the red, blue, and green color cones in the eye, and he found the cones had a completely random geometry. His work has shown how important the brain is in processing information and making our eyes effective sensors. More

SPIE Professional / October 2009

Better Health: Photonics for a Better WorldSPIE Professional highlights a number of photonics and optical technologies that improve human health. UV light is used to disinfect water. A group of labs and public health agencies in Europe and Africa is using satellite data to sense where disease and pollution occur. University of Texas at Austin and Stanford University (USA) engineers have patented a laser microscalpel for surgeons to operate on tissue one cell at a time, precisely targeting cancer, epilepsy, and other diseases while leaving healthy surrounding cells alive. Two University of Arizona (USA) researchers have received a $2.4 million grant to design, build, and evaluate two versions of an ovarian cancer medical imaging and screening instrument that uses holographic components in a new type of optical microscope. And Aculight Inc. of Bothell, WA (USA), is developing an optical neural technique for mitigating hearing loss among soldiers. The technique involves laser nerve stimulation. More

SPIE Professional: Green Entrepreneur Bruce ChengGreen Entrepreneur: Delta Electronics CEO Bruce Cheng is known as the godfather of energy conservation in Taiwan business circles, having made environmental protection, sustainability, and energy savings cornerstones of his power supply company.Cheng has pioneered lead-free manufacturing and mercury-free LCD components in the industry, and his Taiwan and USA offices and production facilities have won praise for their energy-saving designs. He leads by example. Cheng was the first person in Taiwan to own a Toyota Prius when he imported the hybrid from the United States in 2004. SPIE Professionalasked Cheng to share his business successes and challenges and his rationale for becoming a "green" entrepreneur.  More

SPIE Professional, Refreshable Braille Displays, Photonics for a Better WorldDynamic Braille:Research with electroactive polymer (EAP) technology is giving hope to people with visual impairments around the world who someday may be able to read text on an inexpensive, full-page, refreshable Braille display. The development of low-cost, efficient, refreshable displays for Braille text would give Braille readers access to state-of-the-art digital technology and the enormous volume of information on the Internet, opening doors for educational, employment, and recreational opportunities. Although there are numerous challenges to devising low-cost mechanisms, materials, and processing techniques for a refreshable Braille display, advances in EAP technology may make those capabilities feasible in the not-too-distant future. More

SPIE Professional / July 2009

Illustration for article, SPIE ProfessionalSolar and Sensing Technologies: Laser-based, solar, and infrared sensing technologies are improving auto safety, combating public health threats, and helping empower the women of war-torn Darfur. This series of brief items in SPIE Professional describes the research on using lasers to zap malaria-carrying mosquitoes and the work of agencies like the Light Up the World (LUTW) Foundation which has brought solar-powered LED lighting to numerous developing countries. This article also focuses on the Solar Cooker Project, an alternative to firewood cooking, and optical sensors installed on autos to warn of objects that could pose a hazard to drivers. More

Watch a video interview about the LUTW project and listen to the podcast on the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) in the SPIE Newsroom.

Illustration for agri-photonics article, SPIE ProfessionalAgri-Photonics: Farming strategies and technologies have changed and adapted over the millennia to new environments, new crops, and new needs. Now, optical and photonic technologies are helping to make soil stronger, grapes sweeter, and food safer to eat. Lasers and imaging sensors mounted on planes, fluorescence spectroscopy, lidar, and energy efficient LEDs are just some of the latest farming and food processing tools in the emerging field of optical farming, or agri-photonics. Photonics technologies can help predict protein levels in wheat harvests, determine when to harvest grapes, map water quality to observe the health of fish stocks, and screen for contaminants in spinach, tomatoes, and other foods. More

Do you have a story to tell about how optics and photonics benefit humanity? Have a question or comment about these articles? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

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