Photonics—which refers to the science of harnessing light—is all around us: in our TVs, smartphones, cars, and computers. It’s the backbone of many modern electronic systems, and its potential applications are virtually unlimited. Over the years countries like China, Germany, Japan, and South Korea have realized this and built photonics industries not only to introduce myriad innovations but also to create jobs and strengthen their economies.
One country missing from this list is the United States. Once a leader in the field, it now lags behind in investment, training, and job creation. Alarmed by this situation, the National Research Council of the National Academies wants the country to embark on a research program to fill its technological gaps in optics, photonics, and optical engineering. And last November, the council recommended actions to support global leadership in photonics-driven industries in its “Optics and Photonics: Essential Technologies for Our Nation” report.
Action got under way in May with the formation of a group to coordinate U.S. activities. Members of the National Photonics Initiative (NPI) include the IEEE Photonics Society; the American Physical Society; the Laser Institute of America; the Optical Society; and SPIE, the International Society of Optics and Photonics. The group also includes representatives from industry, academia, and government. The group issued a white paper, “Lighting the Path to a Competitive, Secure Future,” in May.
“We want to raise awareness among government leaders about the importance of photonics and to encourage them to direct funding into those areas that can best foster job growth and prosperity,” says Richard Linke, executive director of the IEEE Photonics Society.
The collaborative alliance has called for expanding federal investment in research, expanding private funding in education and job-training programs, and reviewing international trade practices. Because of the “deplorable” state of data collection and analysis of R&D spending on photonics, according to the council’s report, there are no reliable figures on what the government is currently spending.
CALL TO ACTION
The NPI’s white paper outlines recommendations to guide funding and investment in five key photonics-driven fields: advanced manufacturing, communications and information technology, defense and national security, health and medicine, and energy.
“NPI chose these five fields in photonics because they either have already had a huge impact or they are expected to do so in the near future,” Linke says.
For example, in communications, bandwidth demand is expected to grow another hundredfold over the next 10 to 20 years. Without improvements to address cost, power consumption, and data rates, demand for such enhanced communications will outstrip capacity. Among its recommendations, NPI calls for renewing and increasing federal funding for future generations of technology, and for the programs to allow access by researchers in publicly traded and private companies and universities. It also calls for the adoption of policies that promote installation of next-generation broadband infrastructure throughout the country.
In the health care area, photonics-based tools offer sensitivity, precision, speed, and accuracy. Photonics-based systems have been shown to enable rapid diagnosis and valuable therapy, key ingredients for high-quality, cost-effective care. For example, the report notes that smaller, more portable, automated point-of-care diagnostic devices could reach patients who now have no access to health care at all. Accordingly, NPI recommends funding for developing affordable, point-of-care diagnostic devices in areas where it sees a major need, such as in dealing with infectious diseases, internal traumatic injuries, and cardiac arrest. It also seeks more investment in the development and enhancement of existing optical technologies that can lead to innovative medical applications.
Photonics-based technologies in the energy field, such as in solar photovoltaic power, provide cleaner, more efficient energy sources. They are the fastest-growing source of energy in the country. Growth in applications can be further accelerated by reducing manufacturing costs of the cells and developing new, lower-cost materials and devices, the NPI report says. One recommendation calls for establishing a “road map” for solar energy among industry, academia, the national labs, and government, with an emphasis on performance, cost, and market needs.
The report also includes recommendations applicable across all five fields involving photonics. These include developing federal programs that encourage greater collaboration in support of R&D programs between industry and academia; increasing investment in education and job-training programs to boost the number of technically skilled workers; and expanding federal investment supporting collaborative university and industry research to develop new manufacturing methods that apply, in particular, to photonics.
“The time is now for the United States to make the right investments in the crucial capabilities of the future,” says Eugene Arthurs, the CEO of SPIE.
Some of the new programs that the IEEE Photonics Society has launched to raise awareness of its own activities are described in Society Spotlight: IEEE Photonics Society.