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SPIE Professional January 2011: Bonus Web Content


Optics and photonics companies are well positioned to eco-innovate and improve their profits and the profits of their customers.

By Rosemarie Szostak

Better, cheaper, faster will always bring customers to your door. But if you want to stay ahead of the pack, your new products should also be environmentally sustainable.

The biggest misconception in the marketplace is that environmentally sustainable products and services are inherently more expensive and only target the tree-hugging boutique customer. They are not and do not.

Following sustainability principles can improve products’ value, reduce manufacturing and shipping costs and, in an increasing number of markets, comply with “green” mandates.

Are you aware that U.S. patent applications that will materially enhance the quality of the environment or “contribute to the development or conservation of energy resources” can be petitioned to be “made special,” or given priority examination, without a fee? Many sustainable inventions fit in one of these categories.

The optics and photonics field is well positioned to eco-innovate across a large swath of industries including solar energy, lighting, production technologies, and optical communication. Companies taking up this green challenge are steadily improving their own and their customers’ profits by reducing carbon emissions and providing better, more cost effective products. They get it.

The C2P conundrum

word image of green photonicsHave teen-agers in your household? Then you may have seen your electric bill steadily rise with each computer, gaming console, and smart phone they add to their arsenal of must-have gear. As a prudent consumer, we typically cost-compare before purchasing any new widget. Now, we are also asking how these products will affect our energy bills.

Industry is asking the same questions. How can costs be minimized, capacity optimized, and power requirements reduced? This challenge is not for the faint of heart, but it’s a win-win solution for those willing to consider the environment as a critical component of the solution.

Alcatel-Lucent has taken up this challenge by first tracking the cost-to-power (C2P) requirements across the different layers in the optical transportation network. The company reported in a 2009 white paper that, as data traffic increased, most of it did not require the higher, more power-intensive levels to move data. A traffic cop, an intelligent multilayer architecture, one that can automatically direct traffic to the lowest level of switching required, could improve energy efficiency. The three key components are bandwidth, network availability, and service requirements.

Combining this with new operation, administration, and management (OAM) tools that work at the photonic level and improving thermal efficiency of the system allowed Alcatel-Lucent to eco-innovate and shed some new light on communication technology efficiency while improving cost and bandwidth availability.

Light control meets C2P

Optical fibers we use today can transmit data at light speed, but the devices we use to route and process that data still require converting those light signals to electronic signals. Recent breakthroughs are projected to lead to the next generation of lower-power, all-optical data systems.

In 2008, Japanese researchers showed they could slow the speed of light 170x. Researchers at University of California, Santa Cruz, and Brigham Young University have ramped that up an order of magnitude. They reported in Nature Photonics (November 2010) slowing the speed of light by a factor of 1200 using an atomic spectroscopy chip. Their new optical device relies on quantum interference effects with a rubidium vapor inside a hollow-core optical waveguide built into a silicon chip. It can be produced using standard manufacturing techniques. Although the goal of the research wasn’t to save energy, researchers acknowledge that the device has low energy requirements.

Commercial manufacturing methods have been making rapid improvements in energy efficiency, reduced water requirements, and minimized toxic-waste streams. Thus, the ability to build new technology using conventional methods eliminates the need to reinvent the green wheel. Time will tell whether this new technology represents the disruptive one that opens up a plethora of devices and apps we must purchase for our teens while simultaneously providing our planet with less energy-intensive ways to communicate.

Even patents are going green

Of course, using present manufacturing methods isn’t the only way to be environmentally sustainable. Open innovation, a paradigm that assumes that companies can use external as well as internal ideas and markets to advance their technology, has spawned a green cousin, open eco-patents.

The Eco-Patent Commons was launched in 2008 by companies such as HP, IBM, Nokia, Pitney-Bowes, Sony, Xerox, DuPont, Dow Chemical, and Bosch in collaboration with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. It began with IBM donating 31 environmental patents to the public domain, and it now has more than 100 patents. These eco-patents include refrigerants and heat transfer agents, remediation technologies, and electrical energy management controls for improved fuel efficiency.

Anyone who wants to bring environmental benefits to market can use the Commons’ patents to improve environmental performance of their product, protect the environment, and ultimately enable collaboration that fosters the next generation of greener innovations.

Another marketplace for sharing intellectual property is the GreenXchange, launched in January 2010.

This exchange is a Web-based marketplace through which companies share intellectual property, leading to new sustainable business practices and innovation. Founded by Nike, Best Buy and others, the group partnered with Creative Commons, a nonprofit that has designed licenses that allow creators of intellectual property to share their work.

Green mandates

Contrary to popular belief, what you don't know can hurt you. Manufacturers and suppliers must stay aware of laws and regulations in the environmental arena that affect their target markets. If they don't, they may be hit with penalties or shut out of strategic markets and ultimately pushed aside by competition as a result.

Innovation and product development must be driven by both the existing mandates and pending changes that will impact the market. For example, plastics companies that were ahead of the BPA-free curve came through the recent controversies with little damage.

Not only are there numerous government mandates in countries around the world, but many industries and retailers are asking for green attributes in the products and services they purchase. These requirements include verifiable product sources, shipping and distribution reductions, packaging minimization, content labeling, recycling requirements or end-of-life disposition that may include product take-back.

Is your technology sustainable?

Does your development pathway have environmentally neutral attributes? Does it reduce resource needs? When commercialized, what would your product’s environmental footprint look like?

This economic downturn is an excellent time to evaluate the greenness of your technology and patent portfolio. The intersection of environmental sustainability and innovation is also about reduction, which can also mean a reduction in expenses.

Identify patents in your portfolio that may not be well positioned for a move to a sustainable economy future or that represent outdated, environmentally unfriendly technologies. Focus on developing energy-efficient, less polluting, or cleaner technologies. These might be the gems that could be in demand in the next five to 10 years as we move away from petroleum, toward higher levels of recyclable content and fewer chemicals that are toxic or persistent in the environment.

Rosemarie Szostak, Nerac analyst
Rosemarie Szostak, formerly of the Georgia Technology Research Institute, is a technology and innovation analyst for Nerac, advising companies on energy, materials, and sustainable design. She previously managed the Philip Morris USA Environmental Footprint Program and served as a program manager for DARPA. She earned her PhD in chemistry at UCLA.

Government initiatives and eco-regulations

More and more governments are enacting requirements for energy-efficient products, identification of chemical substances used in the manufacturing process, and environmentally safe disposal of electrical and electronic equipment, creating new compliance and marketing challenges.

If you intend to sell your products to U.S. federal agencies, be aware that the federal government has initiated policies to encourage all agencies to preferentially purchase more sustainable products and services.

State and local governments in the United States and Canada have passed and continue to introduce numerous product-based environmental and safety measures, creating new compliance and marketing challenges for all companies wishing to do business in these jurisdictions. In some cases, the requirements exceed comparable mandates in Europe and Asia.

The European Union has adopted action plans to promote technologies that use less environmentally harmful alternatives. For example, the EU has passed laws requiring energy-using products, such as electrical and electronic devices and heating equipment, to be designed to be more energy-efficient (EPEAT). The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) imposes the responsibility for the disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment on the manufacturers.

The Energy using Products (EuP) Directive sets requirements to reduce the environmental impact of products that use electricity across their entire lifecycle.

REACH is a recent European Community Regulation on chemicals and their safe use through better and earlier identification of the intrinsic properties of chemical substances, especially those containing more than agreed-upon levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium(VI), polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants.

In Asia, the largest push toward product-oriented regulations is evident in China, India, and South Korea.

The rapid pace of China's development has stimulated the government to look toward more stringent requirements than the EU's WEEE regulations.

Latin America has witnessed an explosion of corporate takeback programs, due to the lack of government-run waste disposal. Here, the private sector must take responsibility for consumer product waste disposal.  

To position your company for a future of stringent environmental regulations and greater customer awareness of their environmental footprint, evaluate your technology portfolio for energy, water, and material use.


SPIE has two new events this year that focus on optics and photonics for clean energy generation, solid-state lighting and displays, environmental monitoring, and eco-friendly manufacturing and communications.

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

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201101.11

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