Photonics West Highlights

Photonics West 2016 sets participation record.

01 April 2016

Hot technical topics at SPIE Photonics West in February included neurophotonics, 3D printing and imaging, miniaturization in biomedical devices as well as sensors and optoelectronic devices, photoacoustic sensing, fiber lasers, and silicon photonics.

The annual LASE, OPTO, and BiOS conferences, with more than 4800 technical presentations and 67 courses and workshops, provided an international forum for researchers to report and discuss their latest results with peers, collaborators, and the business community.

A record number of registrations exceeded 22,000, and there was a record number of exhibiting companies in the Photonics West Exhibition (1,345) in San Francisco, CA (USA), as well. The separate weekend BiOS Expo included 212 companies.

The growing participation reflected research-funding and market opportunity for photonics and the strength of the photonics industry overall.

An extensive industry and professional development program complemented the technical conferences, with panels and workshops on 3D printing, silicon photonics, intellectual property, marketing, export rules, and business perspectives from industry executives. The weeklong event also included a two-day job fair, the SPIE Startup Challenge (see article here), and the Prism Awards for Photonics Innovation, honoring the most promising new products launched in 2015 (see article here).

In an update on the ongoing SPIE analysis of the global photonics market, Stephen G. Anderson, SPIE director of industry development, reviewed the growing markets enabled by optics and photonics products. Total application revenues are approaching USD$1.5 trillion, and the greater industry employs more than 3.5 million people, the SPIE study shows.

Panelists discussing 3D printing explored not only the technicalities of the field, but intellectual property challenges, cybersecurity threats, and ethical issues. The technology makes possible the production of lightweight airplane and automobile parts with 3D printers and has the potential to produce human tissue.

“SPIE Photonics West is firmly established as the must-attend event in our industry,” said Andrew Brown, SPIE senior director for global business development. “Photonics is the future, and this is where the world’s innovators and business leaders gather every year to launch new products, find new markets, and drive this industry forward.”

A sampling of the highlights are below and online.


Research on the workings of the brain was advanced in a new program track on neurophotonics organized by Rafael Yuste of Columbia University, who helped conceptualize and launch the US Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative.

In addition, a neuroscience task force of the US National Photonics Initiative hosted a “hot topics” session on the BRAIN initiative. More than 150 people attended a Sunday afternoon discussion and networking reception that featured speakers from federal agencies, academia, and industry who described progress in mapping brain function, work which is enabled by several photonics technologies and applications, such as sensors, lasers, and imaging devices.

Ned Talley, a program director with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), illustrated the need for better understanding of disorders of the brain by pointing out that they have become the most costly of chronic diseases in the US, even more than cancer and cardiovascular disease.

“We don’t know enough about the brain to meet this challenge,” he said. Even so, he said, “the tools we have, including photonics tools, are starting to look extremely promising.”

As part of the BRAIN initiative, the NIH has developed a formal program for public-private partnerships, Talley said. Last year, the agency spent $85 million to support 125 projects, he said, and so far, the initiative is receiving strong bipartisan support in Congress for funding.

The photonics industry has a huge role to play in the fast-growing areas of neurophotonics and optogenetics, according to several of the speakers.

“There is a market there,” said Kunal Ghosh, a biomedical imaging expert who is CEO and cofounder of Inscopix, a spinout from Stanford University. “Look at genomics. When it started a couple of decades back, an entire new sector was born,” he said.


At the OPTO plenary session, SPIE Fellow Robert Boyd of the University of Ottawa and the University of Rochester had a recent and relevant example of nonlinear optics as a superb platform from which to explore new physical processes and develop photonics applications.

Just the week before Photonics West, scientists announced that twin detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US had observed gravitational waves for the first time, confirming a major prediction of Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity. (See article here.) Nonlinear optics lies at the heart of how LIGO increases its sensitivity to detect gravitational waves, he noted.

Nonlinear optic techniques may also play a big role in the future of quantum communications systems, he said.

Another OPTO speaker, Michael Liehr, CEO of the American Institute for Manufacturing of Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics), gave an overview of the newly funded US institute. (See article here.) And Xiang Zhang of University of California, Berkeley (USA) covered the role of parity-time symmetry techniques in the development of new lasers and solar cells.


Advances in photonic crystal fibers and 3D nanofabrication techniques point to a promising future for basic research and applications in laser technology — and high-power semiconductor lasers are in the process of disrupting a fragmented industry, according to speakers at the LASE plenary session.

Philip Russell of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light (Germany), who first developed photonic crystal fibers in 1996, discussed their use in laser-tweezer applications, spectroscopy, microscopy, and in the generation of vacuum ultraviolet light. By adjusting the pressure of the gas in the hollow core of a photonic crystal fiber, researchers can tune properties such as the group velocity dispersion. They can then convert infrared into vacuum UV, which is useful for spectroscopy, characterizing new materials, and many other applications. Russell’s team is now starting a company to develop these new vacuum UV light sources.

“You can do many, many things with these fibers,” he said. “It’s like a big playground for physicists and engineers.”

A talk by SPIE Fellow Satoshi Kawata of the University of Osaka and RIKEN covered the many applications of 3D nanofabrication, from developing tiny machines and devices that treat diseases to metamaterials with new properties.

In 1997, Kawata’s team devised a technique called two-photon photopolymerization to create a three-dimensional figure of a bull as small as a blood cell. The method involves a near-infrared femtosecond laser that penetrates a photopolymer solution. The laser solidifies the liquid at the focus of the beam.

Researchers used this technique to create nanoscale data-storage devices and later began using a UV laser to grow nanostructures. More recently, Kawata said he is using self-growth techniques to create a metallic fractal metamaterial with new, useful properties. Nanofabrication in 3D could possibly be used to make micromachines for inside the body, he said.

Scott Keeney, president, CEO and cofounder of nLight, sounded an optimistic note with his assessment of the laser industry as finally coming into its own. The disruptive effects of high-power semiconductor lasers offer many opportunities for growth in the fragmented laser market, he said. Advanced manufacturing will be among the big applications for these lasers, he predicted, as well as microfabrication for the consumer and medical markets.

SPIE Photonics West will return to the Moscone Center in San Francisco, 28 January through 2 February 2017.


The Photonics West Show Daily was distributed in San Francisco, CA (USA) each day of the Photonics West exhibition in February.

The newspapers are available as PDFs.

Read more highlights from Photonics West.

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