Applications of photonics technology in research and development over the past decade have helped to create many technologies that will improve water safety, reduce wasted paper and make manufacturing and agriculture more environmentally friendly in the coming decade.
In its first environmental technology forecast, researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have identified 10 areas where technology will benefit the environment and consumers in the next 10 years. In many areas, photonics acts offstage, providing instrumentation for research and devices to control the technology. Gerry Stokes, associate laboratory director responsible for the environmental and health sciences division, said the advances that come through the applications of photonics "point the way forward."
One of the most visible effects of photonics technology is in the development of better computer displays that when used with the immediate information from the Internet may reduce wasted paper.
Behind the curtain
High-speed communication networks, imaging systems and sensors, however, may prove to be photonics' largest contribution to improving the environment. Stokes said photonics is at the heart of advances in rapid DNA sequencing that has enabled "the whole biological revolution." This may lead to genetically engineered plants that use previously unused plant parts, such as the leaves of a potato, to grow medicine.
Instantaneous information provided by high-speed communication links and electro-optical sensors will allow companies to more closely monitor processes such as water treatment to reduce the amount of chemicals used.
Instrumentation using lasers, avalanche photodiodes, photomultiplier tubes and charge-coupled device cameras lies behind many of the advances in designing devices that may bring us better filters and sensors and more efficient solar cells.
Photonics is providing ways for science to improve devices while reducing the deleterious effects that modern life has on the environment. "The advances in photonics have led the way in transforming our view of technology from the hammer and tongs to the microelectronics that we know now," Stokes said. "The pace of photonics technology development in the last 10 years has also given people confidence that some of these other things will progress as well."