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SPIE Professional October 2012

National Research Council report establishes optics and photonics as ‘essential' technologies

Optics and Photonics Essential Technologies report

The new report calling optics and photonics “essential” technologies for America’s future was 18 months in the making. Now it’s time to spread the message about the field’s economic magnitude and wide influence on daily life.

Are you ready to be an advocate for the global photonics-driven industry?

SPIE leaders have commended the report, “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for our Nation,” for calling for a unified strategy for development and commercialization of applications enabled by these technologies.

The report, prepared by a National Academies committee of the National Research Council as a follow-up to the 1998 “Harnessing Light” study, says optics and photonics technologies are key to bolstering and expanding the U.S. economy and stimulating new solutions to global challenges in energy, health care, manufacturing, communications, and other important areas of life. It assesses the current state of optical science and engineering in the United States and abroad and identifies research priorities, technological and business opportunities, and grand challenges.

In particular, SPIE has endorsed the report’s recommendation for a national photonics initiative (NPI).

The NPI would be a collaborative effort by industry, government, and academia to develop a more integrated approach to managing public and private R&D spending in photonics; advance the research goals put forward in the report; and improve the collection and reporting of R&D and economic data in the field.

SPIE is sponsoring and/or supporting a number of events and activities to encourage members of the optics community to communicate with policy makers, lawmakers, business contacts, and others about the vital, enabling role of optics and photonics in the economy.

As the health of the economy and industry is inextricably linked to the readiness of the workforce, SPIE also continues to urge its members to advocate for investment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. See below for how you can participate.

Essential Technologies event in Washington

The report was introduced to policy makers and legislators at two events in Washington, DC, on 12 September sponsored by SPIE, the American Physical Society (APS), the IEEE Photonics Society, and the Optical Society (OSA).

Energy Secretary Steven Chu and former Intel CEO Craig Barrett (center, above) participated in the events. Also at the launch events were, from left, SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs; SPIE Past President Ralph James;  Barrett; SPIE ESTeP Committee Chair Robert Lieberma;, and SPIE Past President and "Optics and Photonics" committee cochair Paul McManamon.

Unifying a strategy for optics

There was never any doubt that photonics plays a significant role in the American economy and in R&D. “It pops up in different forms but not in any strategic way whereby the whole community can thrive over many years,” says committee co-chair Alan Willner, a professor at University of Southern California. Willner and co-chair Paul McManamon, owner of Exciting Technology and director of the Ladar and Optical Communication Institute at University of Dayton, are SPIE Fellows who spoke at SPIE Optics + Photonics when the report was released in August.

The sheer breadth of optics and photonics applications, from nanotechnology to semiconductors to space-based telescopes, has impeded the formulation of a coherent strategy for the development and deployment of the technology, the report notes.

The report is available at opticsandphotonics.org and www.nap.edu. It emphasizes the need for public policy that encourages adoption of a portfolio approach to investing in the wide and diverse opportunities now available within photonics.

Optics contributes to economy

Because of the role as enabling technologies in multidisciplinary applications with electronics, chemistry, and other fields, the exact economic impact of optics and photonics has been hard to measure, the report says.

Conservative estimates start at $500 billion in revenues and more than 7.4 million jobs in the United States that are directly related to or enabled by optics and photonics technologies. This includes numerous applications of lasers, computer chips, solar-energy panels, displays, sensors, and other technologies in manufacturing, medicine, defense and security systems, lighting, bridge and highway structural analysis, and much more.

Even without precise data, “the report underscores that optics and photonics are huge contributors to the economy,” says SPIE Executive Director Eugene Arthurs. The technologies enable applications ranging from the Internet to new tests for cancers to treatments for stroke and other brain disorders that transmit data from the body using beams of light.

“Very large numbers of direct and enabled jobs for the future depend on mastery of optics and photonics,” Arthurs says.

The report focuses specifically on opportunities in eight areas that have the potential for significant impact on human societies:

  • Communications, information processing, and data storage
  • Defense and national security
  • Energy
  • Health and medicine
  • Advanced manufacturing
  • Advanced photonic measurements and applications
  • Strategic materials for optics
  • Displays

Communicating that impact to policy makers, heads of companies, investors, and young people planning careers must be a priority for each of us, Arthurs says.

Enabling medical breakthroughs with photonics

Applications in medicine, as an example, range from laser therapies and minimally invasive surgeries to characterizing the human genome and performing bedside clinical analyses, says SPIE Fellow Bruce Tromberg, director of the Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine, and a member of the SPIE Board of Directors.

“State-of-the-art photonics research is driving remarkable advances that will make personalized medicine a practical reality,” Tromberg says. “Light-based technologies will help us discover more effective drugs, optimize how individuals respond to medications while minimizing side effects, restore vision and reverse damage to sensitive neural tissues, and provide ‘guide stars’ that dramatically improve surgical accuracy.

“These advances will help reduce health care costs by providing better methods for patient management that minimize costly procedures and extended hospital stays.”

Tromberg emphasized that the successful commercialization of research requires a strategic focus such as the national photonics initiative proposed in the report.

“Our continued strategic investment in photonics is essential for maintaining a robust pipeline of new discoveries that fuels both commercialization and clinical translation,” he says.

Dennis Matthews, director of the Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, also stressed the economic impact of optics and photonics, along with the importance of new technologies for diagnosis in the field.

“Harnessing light for the life sciences and medicine has grown into a multi-billion-dollar worldwide industry and a strategic thrust of government-sponsored research on every continent,” Matthews said. “Modern optical techniques now provide microscopes that rival the resolution only thought possible using electrons or x rays a few short years ago. These enable early detection and efficacious treatment of disease by analyzing a drop of blood with field-portable rapid-assay instruments.”

Grand challenges for optics and photonics

In manufacturing as well as medicine, optics and photonics technologies have significant potential for creating new industries and increasing job growth in the United States, despite the nation’s declining share of global manufacturing production and revenues.

The report stresses the need for the United States to stake a leadership position in manufacturing, particularly in industries that produce computer chips, displays, and solar-energy systems.

Opportunities also exist in low-volume, custom manufacturing and additive-manufacturing technologies, such as laser sintering and 3D printing. These latter technologies are already being used for creation of prototypes and actual products such as medical and dental prosthetics and implants, automotive components, and airplane wings.

Development of optical sources and imaging tools to support increased resolution in chip manufacturing is among the five “grand challenges” the committee identified in the report.

Other grand challenges are inventing new technologies for increasing transmission rates on communications networks like the Internet; improving military surveillance and missile defense; making solar power as cheap as coal in eight years; and reaching seamless integration of photonics and electronics at the chip level.

  • How can the U.S. optics and photonics community invent technologies for the next factor-of-100 cost-effective capacity increases in optical networks?
  • How can the U.S. optics and photonics community develop a seamless integration of photonics and electronics components as a mainstream platform for low-cost fabrication and packaging of systems-on-a-chip for communications, sensing, medical, energy, and defense applications?
  • How can the U.S. military develop the required optical technologies to support platforms capable of wide-area surveillance, object identification and improved image resolution, high-bandwidth free-space communication, laser strike, and defense against missiles?
  • How can U.S. energy stakeholders achieve cost parity across the nation’s electric grid for solar power versus new fossil-fuel powered electric plants by the year 2020?
  • How can the U.S. optics and photonics community develop optical sources and imaging tools to support an order of magnitude or more of increased resolution in manufacturing?
Report Sponsors

The report on “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation” was produced by the U.S. National Academies’ project “Harnessing Light: Capitalizing on Optical Science Trends and Challenges for Future Research.”

Funding for the project came from:

  • SPIE
  • Army Research Office
  • Air Force Office of Scientific Research
  • Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
  • Department of Energy
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • National Research Council
  • National Science Foundation
  • Optical Society of America
Spread the word about essential technologies

What can you do to support the national photonics initiative (NPI)?

Ensure that more kids become and stay engaged in science and math by volunteering for education outreach.

Contact local legislators and policy makers to advocate for public investment in science, technology, engineering, and math education to train the next-generation workforce of scientists and innovators.

Spread the word among CTOs, voters — everyone — about the impact and ubiquity of the enabling technologies of optics and photonics that lead to advanced manufacturing and medical breakthroughs.

Learn more at opticsandphotonics.org


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: 10.1117/2.4201210.02

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