Optics Sees the Light

The future is bright for German physicists. "Light and optical technologies will be one of the most important technologies in the future," according to Wolf-Michael Catenhusen of the German Federal Ministry of Research and Education ( BMBF), which has just launched a substantial funding programme for the field. Called Optical Technologies--Made in Germany, the budget for the programme will see annual increases over the next 5 years, to a ceiling of ?61 million in 2006. In addition, the ?280 million total is earmarked only for project-based funding, so that general funding for German research institutions could provide still more resources.

German industry, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, is already making light work of optics, according to Catenhusen. Today, 14% to 15% of all manufacturing jobs in Germany are influenced by optical technologies.

With the creation of a German Network of Competence Optical Technologies ( Kompetenznetze Optische Technologien), or Optecnet, the ministry has already initiated the necessary infrastructure to promote further growth. Optecnet includes seven regional networks with more than 400 industry, research, and funding partners. Additionally, another network funded by several German Länder (states) has been established in Hamburg (see sidebar below on the right).

Germany's Optical Technology Networks

The seven Kompetenznetze Optische Technologien, plus one Länder-funded network, as established in 2001 include:

Germany is not the only place in the world focusing on optical technologies. Other bright lights in the optical market include the United States and Japan, and the European Union will also contribute fresh resources in 2003 with the start of the 6th Framework Programme. "The world market for optical technologies is about $80 billion per year, with an annual increase of about 20%," says Gerd Litfin, a professor at the University of Hannover and CEO of Göttingen-based LINOS AG, a company that develops and manufactures optomechanical systems. "Germany's position is relatively stable," he adds. "We have a high market share in high-end products, and the BMBF programme will help us stabilise our top position."

But "there is high potential for growth," which so far "cannot fully be used," according to Wolfgang Sandner, managing director of the Berlin-based Max Born Institute for Nonlinear Optics and Short Pulse Spectroscopy. "Telecommunications and biotechnologies are the biggest growth areas in this market," says Litfin. "Nearly all of today's telecommunication is based on optical networks," and biotechnology is highly dependent on optical technologies as well, such as microscopy, he points out.

To be successful, the BMBF's programme needs to boost physical and engineering sciences in many different ways. "We are aiming at better networking between science and industry," Catenhusen says. "The importance of optical technologies has already led to new university degree programmes, such as photonic engineering." Litfin hopes that new or updated programmes will provoke interest among the young. "These new technologies need to be used wisely. Researchers also need to be trained to understand the benefit of optical technologies and their potential applications. We are currently suffering an acute shortage of young graduates," Litfin says, pointing to the declines of up to 80% in students attending German physics programmes over the last decade. Although this means no shortage of jobs for the current generation of physicists and engineers, unless a new crop of young scientists can be attracted to the field, it could all turn out to be an optical illusion.

Further information can also be found at the Internet portal www.optischetechnologien.de.

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