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SPIE Professional April 2011

Harnessing the Photonics Industry

By Karen Thomas

Optical technology affects our daily lives in ways we sometimes barely notice, because we so quickly accommodate to new technologies. Today, items such as infrared remote controls, LEDs, and laser printers are as common to us as coffee cups.

Yet optical science and engineering have created life-altering devices such as lasers used in modern surgery and optical fibers that transport voices and images around the world. Studies of high-efficiency light sources show the promise of greatly reducing electricity consumption, which could also have a positive impact on environmental conservation.

Capturing the photonics from the sun is the most promising and "natural" solution to the energy challenge. Industry uses optical engineering in everything from the manufacture of computer components to the construction of satellites.

In 1998, the National Academies in the United States and its operating arm, the National Research Council (NRC), published Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century. This 360-page study surveyed the many emerging applications for optical technology, reviewed the status of the optics industry, assessed research and education in optics, and identified actions that could enhance the field's contributions to society and facilitate its continued development.

"When Harnessing Light was first published," says Michael Mertin, president and CEO of Jenoptik, "it sounded a bit like science fiction, that the 21st century should become the century of the photon. Yet, if you look at the many applications in medical technology, communications, and entertainment, photonics is now something natural in our daily lives."

Since the publication of Harnessing Light, optical science -- and society -- have changed a great deal. And while the original report has been extremely useful to academic, industrial, and governmental organizations throughout the world, SPIE has been pressing for an update of the study.

Starting with a "Dream Team"

That study is now under way, with its key aim to identify current strengths and challenges to the optics field, including economic impact, workforce needs, and future research directions. After assessing the current state of optical science and engineering in the United States and abroad, the committee is expected to make recommendations for the United States to develop and maintain global leadership in optics and photonics.

photo of Alan WillnerThe National Academies' committee on Harnessing Light: Capitalizing on Optical Science Trends and Challenges for Future Research is a "dream team" of luminaries in the field, says SPIE Fellow Alan Willner, who co-chairs the committee with SPIE Fellow Paul McManamon.

Willner is a professor at University of Southern California, and McManamon, formerly with the U.S. Air Force Research Lab, is owner of Exciting Technology and works at the University of Dayton.

SPIE Fellows Charles Falco (University of Arizona), Prem Kumar (Northwestern University), Duncan Moore (University of Rochester), and Ed Moses (National Ignition Facility) are among the scientists, economists, educators, and business leaders on the committee.

The committee held its first meeting in Washington, DC, in February to gather input from the agencies sponsoring the new study: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Army Research Office.

Representatives from SPIE and other organizations with a stake in the study also attended and stand ready to provide information as needed.

"It's incredibly exciting what the future will hold," Willner says, "given how optics has cemented itself in an enormous number of applications in society" since the first study. "This is all about the future, and the future impact will only grow dramatically."

Defining the role of photonics

In January, SPIE hosted a special "Future of Photonics" forum at Photonics West in San Francisco to begin gathering input. Erik Svedberg, study director and senior program officer with the National Academies, and Eugene Arthurs, CEO of SPIE, moderated the event.

Discussion at the forum showed that a wide range of opinions will have to be taken into account. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the scarcity of measurable statistics showing the socio-economic impact of photonics, the importance of rare earth materials, as well as the influence of the original Harnessing Light report on European thinking were just a few of the points given consideration.

"The report would consider "the technology areas where optics is an enabler that can dramatically impact the economy of the country," Svedberg says.

The finished study would be used to inform industry and government agencies by providing a unique view of the future directions for photonics science and technology and for market trends.

Approximately one year will be spent on information gathering, forums, and committee meetings before the findings and recommendations are published, possibly in 2012.

"Much has happened since the original Harnessing Light study was published in 1998," Svedberg says. "Revisiting the technology and policy issues today would be quite timely. The new report has the possibility to address the role photonics plays in national competitiveness and innovation."

Focusing on education

The topic upon which everyone agrees is the need for maintaining the skills base that has built the existing photonics industry.

photo of Paul McManamon"This is especially critical for the United States, if we wish to maintain a prominent role, and jobs, in the future of optics," McManamon says.

There is understandable concern about the number and quality of science and engineering graduates and PhDs in the United States and Europe, particularly when compared with the huge recent increase of Chinese equivalents.

"Fortunately, the United States has had strong immigration of high-tech talent, which has partially offset the lack of home-grown, advanced-degree graduates," McManamon says. 

Putting optics on the map

Arthurs notes that, "irrespective of the economic conditions, optical science and engineering is headed toward another strong growth period, driven by developments in advanced materials, solid-state lighting, solar technologies, sensors, lasers, imaging, fiber-optic communications, digital photography, diagnostic medicine, computing/processing, and consumer displays and TVs."

It will be up to the photonics community to make the case for the future of the industry and meet the challenges ahead. As Arthurs sums up, "Harnessing Light put us on the map. Now we have a chance to do it again."

For more information on the project, see bit.ly/e9FZoe.

Assessing the impact of optics

SPIE Executive Director Eugene Arthurs cites photonics growth in several economies and suggests that strategic analyses have provided insights and guidelines to their success.

In September 2009, the European Commission designated photonics as one of five key enabling technologies for future prosperity in Europe, and several reports, including the Second Strategic Research Agenda issued by Photonics21, have helped identify opportunities.

The Photonik 2020 report issued in Germany noted that German enterprises are world market leaders in several optical technology fields, with an export quota over 60%. Leading markets are production, health, communication, energy and environment. By the year 2015, an approximate production increase of 8% per year is expected.

Taiwan has established a Ministry of Science and Technology and National Science Council to help inform its several science parks, which collectively logged sales of more than $62 billion in 2007.

Last year, the Canadian Photonics Consortium issued a report on "Illuminating a World of Opportunity: Photonics in Canada."

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201104.19

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