Photonics Is a Nobel Cause

SPIE celebrates 2014 Nobel Prize winners.

01 January 2015

Photonics was central among the Nobel Prizes awarded in 2014 — winning in physics and in chemistry. The significance of this double win was noted by several SPIE constituents, including 2014 SPIE President H. Philip Stahl and President-Elect Toyohiko Yatagai.

“The development of blue LEDs and super-resolved fluorescence microscopy are perfect examples of how optical and photonic scientists and engineers use light-based technology to solve problems and make our world a better place to live,” Stahl said.

Yatagai pointed out that the awards were particularly timely, since 2015 has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Light to help raise awareness of the importance of light and light-based technologies in everyone’s lives

“We are entering a new era of light,” he said. “Light-based technologies will break fresh ground, changing all our lifestyles. It is my pleasure that our society could contribute to this challenge.”

Into the blue

The winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura, were honored for their invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled the development of bright and energy-saving white light sources.

Nobel Prize winner Isamu Akasaki

Isamu Akasaki

Nobel Prize winner Hiroshi Amano

Hiriohi Amano

Nobel Prize winner Shuji Nakamura

Shuji Nakamura

In their official announcement, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted that when the three winning scientists produced bright blue light beams from their semiconductors in the early 1990s, they triggered a fundamental transformation of lighting technology.

Although red and green diodes had been around for some time, without blue light, white lamps could not be created. Considerable efforts had been made in science and industry for three decades, but “they succeeded where everyone else had failed.”

According to SPIE member R. John Koshel of the University or Arizona (USA), this discovery extends far beyond lighting, since blue and associated white-light LEDs have also led to burgeoning research and development in nonimaging/illumination optics, with its designs crossing into the solar concentration sector. Optical engineering spurred on the invention of the white LED and can also be used to produce the electricity that LEDs require, said Koshel.

Mark Rea of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (USA) believes this development could be the most important one in lighting since the incandescent bulb. Rea noted that blue LEDs may be the first ‘white’ lighting technology that displaces all the others because of their wide diversity in form factors, high reliability, controllability and high efficacy, or light per watt.

“This technology provides a platform for delivering greater safety, security, health, and productivity at a lower cost and a lower negative impact on the environment,” he said.

Advancing optical microscopy

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, and SPIE Fellow William E. Moerner for their development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.

Nobel Prize winner Eric Betzig

Eric Betzig

Nobel Prize winner Stefan W. Hell

Stefan W. Hell

Nobel Prize winner William E. Moerner

 W. E. Moerner

For many years, optical microscopy was held back by the presumed limitation that it would never obtain a better resolution than half the wavelength of light. Helped by fluorescent molecules, the Nobel laureates in Chemistry ingeniously circumvented this limitation, bringing optical microscopy into the nanodimension.

“When the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to advancements in optics, which would otherwise be in the field of Physics, you know that something is out of the ordinary, even by Nobel Prize standards,” said SPIE Fellow Dan V. Nicolau of McGill University (Canada).

Nicolau said that at Photonics West 2012 he had introduced Moerner’s plenary session, which described the work he, Betzig, and Hell had so far achieved in nano/biophotonics. At the time, Nicolau speculated this work was Nobel Prize material, but didn’t realize how close he was to the truth.

The Nobel Prize committee noted that this prize rewarded two separate principles. One, developed by Hell in 2000, enables stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy. Two laser beams are utilized; one stimulates fluorescent molecules to glow, another cancels out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometer-sized volume. Scanning over the sample, nanometer for nanometer, yields an image with a resolution better than Abbe’s stipulated limit.

The second method, single-molecule microscopy, was developed by Betzig and Moerner in separate labs.

This method relies upon the possibility of turning the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. The same area is imaged multiple times, letting just a few interspersed molecules glow each time. Superimposing these images yields a dense super-image resolved at the nanoscale. Betzig utilized this method for the first time in 2006.

The advances made by the three Nobel Laureates have enabled, for the first time, nanoscale optical probing of living systems, producing a wealth of new opportunities in biophotonics and beyond according to SPIE Fellow Paras N. Prasad of the Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York (USA).

“The realization of optical microscopy with resolution far below the diffraction method and the use of these techniques to answer important biological questions required the creative integration of optics, physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering by original thinkers who could see beyond the ‘obvious’ limits of optical microscopy,” Prasad said.

SPIE Fellow Tuan Vo-Dinh of Duke University (USA) pointed out how the 2014 Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics serve as a testimony to how optics and photonics relate to the advancement of science.

The awards “underscore the importance of light-based technologies in creating new tools that influence our understanding of nature and life processes in new ways that we could never have imagined just a few decades ago,” Vo-Dinh said.

Nobel Laureates have SPIE connections

The new Nobel Laureates have many ties to SPIE. Hiroshi has served on the program committees for two annual conferences at SPIE Photonics West since 2006: Physics and Simulation of Optoelectronic Devices; and Gallium Nitride Materials and Devices. Akasaki has authored or coauthored more than 35 papers at SPIE symposia since 1990.

Nakamura has served on the program committees of several SPIE conferences on solid-state lighting, and is author or coauthor of more than 30 SPIE publications. His biography, Brilliant! Shuji Nakamura and the Revolution in Lighting Technology, by Bob Johnstone, is available from SPIE.

Moerner has contributed more than 50 papers to SPIE events and has served as a session chair and program committee member for SPIE conferences. Hell served on the editorial board of the SPIE Journal of Biomedical Optics for 15 years and currently serves on the program committees of two annual SPIE conferences: Nanoimaging and Nanospectroscopy and Multiphoton Microscopy. He has presented more than 60 papers at SPIE events since the late 1980s, and has taught courses for SPIE on multiphoton excitation fluorescence microscopy.

Nobel Laureates at Photonics West 2015

The three Physics Laureates, Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura and two Chemistry Laureates, Moerner Eric Betzig, are co-authors of papers to be presented at SPIE Photonics West 2015, 7-12 February in San Francisco.

Moerner and Betzig will also be speakers at the BiOS plenary session and Moerner will deliver a keynote presentation at the Nanoscopy and Superresolution Microscopy session.

Nakamura will be the featured speaker at the SPIE Fellows luncheon during the event, where he will present, “Future and Present Technologies of Solid State-Lighting.”

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