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SPIE Professional January 2013

Controlled chaos for photonics innovation

Highlights from the PISCES conference

By Akhlesh Lakhtakia and Judith A. Todd

R&D Highlights graphic

A galaxy of researchers from government, universities, and industry convened during SPIE Optics + Photonics in San Diego last August to participate in a daylong conference, Photonics Innovations and Solutions for Complex Systems and Environments (PISCES). Their purpose was to identify and elucidate strategies for boosting innovation in optics and photonics during the next two decades.

Mathew Burrows of the National Intelligence Council (USA) opened the conference by laying out several possible scenarios for the social, economic, and political states of the world in 2030. The socioeconomic states ranged from very dismal to very progressive, and the political states from strife-torn multipolar to generally cooperative.

The solution to both pessimistic and optimistic scenarios is techno-scientific innovation, Burrows said. Researchers need to devise cost-effective and innovative solutions to complex problems, even those problems with political dimensions. In our increasingly industrialized world, research must be directed toward health, pollution, energy, food safety, and international peace.

All PISCES participants from research backgrounds agreed that the science of optics and photonics will play a major role in this research because of its wide reach.


  Participants at the 2012 PISCES conference.
Entrepreneurial mindset needed

Going over the century-long history of surface-plasmon research, SPIE Fellow H. Angus Macleod, cofounder of Thin Film Center (USA), observed that while numerous inventions populate one flank of the “valley of death,” the other flank has just a few innovations.

Converting an invention into an innovation requires both an entrepreneurial mindset and an environment that supports commercialization activity, as exemplified from personal experiences by several participants. Among them:

  • SPIE Fellow Oleg Lavrentovich, a Kent State University (USA) professor, described his university’s considerable success in commercializing liquid-crystal devices invented there.
  • SPIE Fellow David Chenault, president of Polaris (USA), described his company’s forte in exploiting the surprisingly large amounts of information contained in the polarization of light for new clients and new applications in previously unexplored spectral regimes.
  • SPIE Fellow James Trolinger, cofounder of MetroLaser (USA), and colleagues have devised super-resolution holographic techniques to characterize extreme environments in aircraft turbines.
  • SPIE member Nelson Tabiryan, cofounder of BEAM Co (USA), discussed the integration of new concepts and thin-film materials into fast nonlinear optical systems with low-power/low voltage requirements.
  • Paul Davis of Goodwin Procter emphasized the importance of filing new disclosures and patenting inventions, particularly with the reduced litigation promised by the America Invents Act.

Are we “swimming in sensors and drowning in data?” wondered SPIE Fellow Paul McManamon, owner of Exciting Technology (USA). Quality data and information are required for proper decisions to be reached. Should research resources be shifted from sensors to processing and automation, particularly for complex military systems such as multi-discriminate ladar?

The propensity to innovate can be inculcated and enhanced en masse, according to M.J. Soileau, a past president of SPIE and founding director of CREOL at University of Central Florida (UCF). The UCF strategy of focusing on key areas, such as photonics, and encouraging partnerships with other universities and industry has positioned UCF as a patent powerhouse producing more than $1 billion in business impact on the region and about 100 patents a year.

Photonics innovation for energy and health

The need for photonics innovations for global health, sustainable energy, and humanitarian causes was emphasized by SPIE Fellow Vasudevan Lakshminarayanan of University of Waterloo (Canada). In a world where 285 million people have seriously impaired vision, efficient detection methods and inexpensive rehabilitation devices are sorely needed, he said.

Research innovations for age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness, should be fostered as a societal need rather than an immediate return on investment, he added.

Cheap and green sources of energy, possibly exploiting the integration of plasmonics with silicon photovoltaics, also need to be developed to reduce global inequities in access to energy. SPIE Fellow Rajendra Singh of Clemson University (USA) pointed to the possibility of providing electricity to the masses at $0.10/kWh through innovative business models and electricity storage systems as well as innovations in volume manufacturing of currently available silicon-based photovoltaic systems.

A future of doing science differently

An exciting “Vision 2025” panel discussion and vigorous participation from the audience at the end of the conference identified several strategies to boost techno-scientific innovation in research institutions.

Interdisciplinary collaboration was a theme that resonated with all. In defense, for instance, SPIE member Craig Hoffman of the U.S. Naval Research Lab highlighted core optics and photonics innovations in the biological, new materials, free space optical communications, and hyperspectral imaging realms.

An environment which promotes multidisciplinary collaborations to address and solve “big” problems is bound to be innovative because innovations occur at the seams. Such collaborations are often seeded by casual conversations around water coolers, in lunch rooms, and after colloquiums and require incentives to sprout.

How can an individual researcher become more innovative?

SPIE Fellow Yoseph Bar-Cohen of the Jet Propulsion Lab (USA) advised keeping one’s eyes always open because inspiration can come from even seemingly insignificant sources. In the same vein, Trolinger suggested that a successful researcher is often a voracious reader, and there are always unintended uses of new technology waiting to be found. No knowledge goes to waste, Chenault agreed.

Do science differently, exhorted the panelists and the audience alike. As intuition can be wrong, devise experiments to challenge assumptions.

Science education is key for photonics innovation

Only a citizenry with a scientific temperament will be able to address the increasingly complex issues facing the world. How can we educate the next generation of students for the innovation economy?

The Vision 2025 panelists and audience were unanimous in their desire for broader and deeper graduation requirements for proficiency in science and mathematics in U.S. high schools.

Wook Jun Nam of Pennsylvania State University spoke of the importance of education for the photonics workforce, following the educational delivery models being developed at the NSF National Center for Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge at Penn State. Soileau emphasized undergraduate internship experiences in preparing engineers for industry.

Nam also highlighted opportunities for further economies of scale and increases in the quantum efficiencies of silicon solar cells through the integration of photonics and plasmonics.

The panel ended on an optimistic note, recognizing that the United States has always had a knowledge-based economy that drives innovation. The lack of young U.S. students studying science and technology has been recognized, remediation is in progress, and there was strong optimism about the availability of global talent.

How will the 20-year horizon for photonics innovation be defined?

“Controlled chaos,” quipped a participant.

Maybe, as Friedrich Nietzsche would have prescribed, a techno-scientifically involved population, broad directions for socially relevant research, spontaneous “interdisciplinarity,” and an environment primed for the transformation of inventions into innovative products and services will be the essential ingredients of a controlled chaos that will give birth to many dancing stars.

Papers presented at the 2012 PISCES conference can be found in the SPIE Digital Library.

USA seeks opportunities for innovation

The release of the U.S. National Research Council 2012 report, “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for our Nation,” at SPIE Optics + Photonics in August 2012 underscored the theme of the PISCES conference held a day earlier.

The report highlights the opportunities for those in the optics and photonics community to address global challenges through a “hands across the aisle” approach with the integration of government, industry, academic research, and educational resources.

See how SPIE members are working with other scientific societies to begin building a framework for a national photonics initiative in the United States at opticsandphotonics.org or in a separate article in this issue.

Judith A. Todd and SPIE Fellow Akhlesh Lakhtakia chaired the PISCES 2012 conference at SPIE Optics + Photonics 2012. They are with the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics at Pennsylvania State University (USA).

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

To receive a print copy of SPIE Professional, the SPIE member magazine, become an SPIE member.


DOI: 10.1117/2.4201301.13

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