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  • Report Hails Photonics as Hope for US Economy
Aug 2012
WASHINGTON, Aug. 14, 2012 — A national photonics initiative would not only advance the economy in the US but also enable growth in applications of optical science and technology, according to a report from the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Committee on Harnessing Light.

The report identifies research priorities and grand challenges to fill gaps in optics and photonics; it recommends that the federal government develop such an initiative to foster collaboration between academia, industry and government, and to steer federal R&D funding and activities.

“Much is unknown when pursuing basic optical science and its transition to engineering and ultimately to products, but the rewards can be great,” said Alan Willner, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California and co-chairman of the committee that wrote the report. “There are a number of opportunities that could change our daily lives.”

The report, titled Optics and Photonics: Essential Technologies for Our Nation, names five grand challenges facing the nation that advances in optics and photonics technology can address: keeping up the pace of technological achievement established in previous decades; improving military surveillance and missile defense; achieving cost parity for solar power versus fossil fuel across the country’s electrical grid; reaching seamless integration of photonics and electronics at the chip level; and developing optical sources and imaging tools for increased resolution in manufacturing.

Separate chapters discuss a number of particular areas of technological application: 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; and displays.

Each chapter reviews progress that has occurred since the 1998 National Research Council report Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century, as well as the technological opportunities that have arisen from recent advances in optical science and engineering. The report recommends actions for the development and maintenance of global leadership in photonics-driven industries, including short- and long-term goals, likely participants and responsible agents of change.

The focus is on the enabling nature of optics and its role in facilitating economic growth. The authors also made a number of specific recommendations on how the US can best capitalize on the opportunities that optics and photonics provide.

The proposed photonics initiative would help manage the breadth of rapidly expanding applications of photonics technologies, allowing government and industry to form coherent strategies for technology development and deployment. It also should spearhead a collaborative effort to improve the collection and reporting of research, development and economic data on this sector.

"The biggest challenge is the next factor of 100 bandwidth growth for the Internet," Paul McManamon, technology director of the Ladar and Optical Communication Institute at the University of Dayton and committee co-chairman, told He added that companies like Google, Facebook and Apple know that current technology will hit a growth wall in 2013 or 2014, but they are adverse to making the investments themselves in long-term research.

Telecommunications is also "best suited to working together quickly," McManamon said, adding that the government/industry partnership could serve as a replacement for the former powerhouse of basic research, Bell Labs.

“The impact of optics and photonics on US technology leadership is substantial; this is a critical reason to support a national photonics initiative,” he said. “Optics and photonics facilitates many technology areas and is therefore critical to US high-tech competitiveness. A national photonics initiative will ensure that we make full use of these technologies.”

Besides the initiative, the authors recommend positioning the US as a leader in optical technologies for global data center business and advancing biomedical technologies to improve areas such as immune system cell measurement and pharmaceutical development. Other recommendations include developing additive manufacturing technology and implementation to enable a greater capacity for custom manufacturing, and supporting small US companies to address market opportunities for applying optics and photonics research advances to create jobs.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation; the Army Research Office; DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office and Defense Sciences Office; NIST; the US Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy divisions; SPIE; the Optical Society (OSA); and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

“This report will serve as a vital tool in making the case for sustained investments in and adoption of optical science and technology worldwide, as it provides specific illustrations of the technological and economic value of optics and photonics in a variety of sectors,” said OSA Public Policy Committee Chairman Gregory Quarles of B.E. Meyers & Co. “For example, the report notes that $4.9 billion worth of laser sales enabled $7.5 trillion of the US gross domestic product in 2009 and 2010. These types of statistics reinforce the true worth of optics and photonics technology.”

OSA will hold a free webcast in conjunction with Stanford University to discuss the report on Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 1 p.m. EDT. Speakers include Willner and fellow NAS committee members Tom Baer, Stanford Photonics Research Center; David Miller, Stanford University; Milton Chang, Incubic Management; and Edward White, Edward White Consulting.

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Materials that, by virtue of their optical characteristics (i.e. refractive index, dispersion,  etc.), are used in optical elements. See crystal; glass; plastic lens.
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