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SPIE Professional July 2013

National Photonics Initiative launched

Alliance works to increase photonics R&D in the United States.
Logo for NPI

The U.S.-based National Photonics Initiative (NPI), an alliance of industry, government, and academic representatives born out of recommendations in the 2012 National Research Council report on optics and photonics, has officially launched and identified a series of measures it believes are crucial for maintaining U.S. competitiveness and national security.

A white paper published by the collaborative group, whose founding sponsors are SPIE and the Optical Society (OSA), makes several recommendations, including establishment of a public-private partnership similar to that being pursued in Europe by Photonics21 (see page 10), as well as a shared chip foundry service tailored for U.S. military requirements.

SPIE Executive Director Eugene Arthurs, pointing to programs already initiated in other parts of the world, says the U.S. could be left behind if it does not come up with its own coordinated plan to support photonics. “As an international society, we work to realize the potential of photonics everywhere,” he said.

Eugene Arthurs photoArthurs cited the 1998 “Harnessing Light” report, which presented a comprehensive overview of the potential impact of photonics on U.S. industry that prompted several worldwide economies to advance their already strong photonics industries. However, the U.S. never developed a cohesive strategy, he said, resulting in its loss of competitive technological advantage in photonics as well as thousands of U.S. jobs and companies to overseas markets.

“The European Union, Germany, Korea, Taiwan, and China all recognize the importance of photonics and have taken action,” Arthurs said.

“More photonics research is needed to maintain U.S. national security in the face of growing non-traditional threats. The time is now for the U.S. to make the right investments in the crucial capabilities of the future.”

Federal funding for photonics is critical

The NPI white paper, entitled “Lighting the Path to a Competitive, Secure Future,” was written by more than 100 contributors and targets five key photonics-driven fields:

  • Advanced manufacturing
  • Communications and information technology (IT)
  • Defense and national security
  • Energy
  • Health and medicine

“Life without photonics is almost unimaginable,” said OSA CEO Elizabeth Rogan. “From the moment you wake up to the alarm on your smartphone, swipe your credit card to pay for coffee, log into your computer, and connect with the world through the Internet, photonics makes it possible.

“The NPI will work to advance photonics in the areas that are most critical to the U.S., like improving the economy, creating jobs, saving lives, and sparking innovation for future generations.”

Other sponsors of the NPI are the American Physical Society (APS), the IEEE Photonics Society, and the Laser Institute of America (LIA).

“The NPI offers an opportunity for us to show how critical it is for federally funded research to flourish in this country,” said Kate Kirby, executive officer of APS. “So many of the technologies that we use every day have come from the results of scientific research in optics and photonics funded by the federal government.”

Key recommendations for national photonics initiative

In addition to calls for more funding of photonics-related research in each of the five photonics areas, key recommendations in the NPI white paper include:

  • Develop federal programs that encourage greater collaboration between U.S. industry, academia, and government labs
  • Increase investment in education and job-training programs, including two-year certificate and undergraduate degree programs in laser materials processing, and incorporating photonics technician training and certificate programs into existing education and retraining programs such as those for veterans
  • Review international trade practices impeding free and fair trade and the current U.S. criteria restricting the sale of certain photonic technologies outside the U.S.
  • Expand federal investments supporting university and industry collaborative research to develop new manufacturing methods that incorporate photonics such as additive manufacturing and ultra-short-pulse laser material processing

For advanced manufacturing, the NPI wants to see a coordinated national effort focused on improving understanding of laser-material interactions to aid future applications in heavy industry and processing of ceramics, plastics, composites, and glass.

The paper makes the point that while universities often have the equipment and capability needed for innovation, they sometimes lack a connection to real-world problems or opportunities where those innovations could be applied.

“There is a need for the creation of applied research and development institutions dedicated to photonics that would unite academia with industry and national labs in existing and emerging regional industrial hubs across the United States,” the paper says.

Photonic institutes in regional industrial hubs would provide natural ecosystems for innovation and matching private funding and could also support educational and retraining activities.

At a launch event in May, the NPI’s advisory committee chairman Thomas Baer, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center, said that although the USA has been a leader in photonics for the past half-century, the rest of the world “has essentially caught up with us.”

For example, he said, only 5% of the world’s production of photovoltaic panels is in the U.S. despite the pioneering work by Americans to develop the technology for solar panels. The United States also lags behind in manufacturing strategies for low-cost LED lighting, he said, with the majority of solid-state lighting R&D now being conducted in Europe and Asia.

The primary barrier to American leadership in solar energy is the cost of manufacturing, he said.

Photonics manufacturing technologies need support

NPI imageBaer added that the NPI represented a coordinated effort among the five different societies sponsoring the initiative to speak with a “harmonious voice to the federal government” about the critical need to make investments in photonics.

Baer cited the Fraunhofer model in Germany as a particularly effective way in which academia, government, and industry can be brought together. The NPI paper notes that President Obama’s administration has already established a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) that could serve as a similar model. The NNMI will create regional hubs for accelerated development and adoption of cutting-edge manufacturing technologies.

“Photonics technology should be explicitly included in the NNMI institutes because of its broad role in supporting advancement across all sectors of manufacturing,” the NPI paper suggests.

The NPI alliance says a review of international trade practices is needed to deter problems threatening U.S. communications equipment suppliers and jobs as well as telecommunications network security.

It also recommends developing a healthy supply chain of trusted components and equipment for the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure. A commercial-grade facility for fabricating photonic integrated circuits (PICs) would be a significant step toward this goal.

Disruptive innovations in photonics needed

The call for investment in shared foundry services is based on a desire to keep the United States on the cutting edge of emerging PIC technology. Such a facility would allow affordable PICs for both military and commercial applications and permit larger-scale deployment of high-performance communication and sensor technology.

Steve Grubb, a fellow from NPI collaborator Infinera, said that a disruptive technology is needed to meet future Internet demands – on top of the existing photonics infrastructure that has already enabled a five-orders-of-magnitude increase in online traffic.

On the healthcare and biophotonics front, the paper highlights the increasing influence of technologies such as optical coherence tomography (OCT), a market said by analyst firm BCC Research to be worth around $645 million in 2012,  and fluorescence-based gene sequencing equipment.

As the home to the world’s most technologically advanced but expensive healthcare system, the United States is regarded as a world leader in this area. But the alliance warns that a focused effort is needed to maintain that position.

The NPI recommends the development of new imaging standards and software methods to automate extraction of useful diagnostic information from huge, multi-dimensional data sets, as well as funding for the development of advanced but affordable diagnostic devices.

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

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DOI: 10.1117/2.4201307.03

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