The returns on discovery

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We generally relegate basic and applied research stories to the Technology News section each month in Photonics Spectra, and we reserve our explorations of technical, engineering, and industry trends for the magazine’s full-length feature articles. Our reasoning is that scientific discovery literally defines what is new in photonics.

But occasionally, there’s a scientific breakthrough in photonics that seems likely to have a ripple effect on the rest of the photonics industry. Such was the case in December when the National Ignition Facility (NIF) made headlines for reporting it had achieved a net energy gain via laser-based inertial confinement fusion. Mainstream media balanced the reported potential for a new, nearly inexhaustible source of comparatively clean energy with skepticism about how long it might take for this energy source to become practical.

We shared this skepticism. But we’ve also learned here at Photonics Spectra that commercial technologies are often a byproduct of the basic scientific discovery underwritten by large, government-funded research projects. In NIF’s case, we wondered what potentially lucrative technical advancements might emerge as the scientists there designed and troubleshot future experiments in laser fusion.

To answer this question, three editors made the pilgrimage to NIF in January for a private tour. One of us, contributing editor Andreas Thoss, had visited the facility a year earlier and had already begun exploring the potential commercial prospects arising from laser fusion — as it is studied at both NIF and other research facilities, such as the Fraunhofer Institute.

The result of Andreas' explorations can be found here. Not to give too much away, but he reports the recent breakthrough at NIF has further fueled interest in a new class of more efficient lasers that would help make a laser-based fusion power plant more feasible. Another spoiler: There are still more questions than answers with regard to engineering such laser systems.

“Further questions” is good news for us journalists. But further government funding for basic research is good news for the industry at large. Consider the commercial impact of basic research into such esoteric inquiries as the transmission of light through glass fiber, the fabrication of semiconductor circuits on silicon, or even special and general relativity. Such work led directly to trillion-dollar technical revolutions built on optical networking, computing, and satellite positioning networks — all well within a century.

It is an important point to remember here in the U.S., as two branches of its government gear up this spring to negotiate very, very different positions on how and where to allocate budget dollars to scientific research.

Published: April 2023

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