Photonics--A Technological Revolution

The technological breakthrough created by the manufacture of optical fibers to process ever-increasing global communications demands has spawned a new discipline: photonics. Many experts think that photonics will drive communications innovation in the 21st century in much the same way that electronics dominated the 20th.

Although the industry has been flat in some regions because of the weak global economy, it is currently making a strong rebound. A lot of photonics R&D is going on in both university and industrial laboratories, enhancing the demand for both researchers and technologists in the field.

Photonics is the technology of generating, transmitting, and manipulating light. Because light travels much faster than does an electric field in a wire, with less signal loss and faster achievable switching frequencies, it is ideal for transmitting a lot of information over long distances, as with telephone calls or Internet signals. In recent years, photonics has been exploited for medical and biological purposes, opening up the new field of biophotonics. And photonics is now being combined with nanotechnology--the engineering of materials on the atomic scale--resulting in the development of microscopic photonic devices.

Optics Valley

Arizona and Ottawa are hubs of the photonics industry in their respective countries. Tucson, or "Optics Valley," as it is known in the industry, and Ottawa--"Silicon Valley North"--share many traits. Both are home to clusters of photonics companies, despite the modest sizes of their communities; both benefit from their proximity to larger cities (Phoenix and Toronto, respectively); and both are centers for intensive photonics research.

The Optical Sciences Center (OSC), located at the University of Arizona (U of A), is recognized as a world center for leading-edge academic and research programs in optics. According to its Web site, 180 students are enrolled in U of A's master's and Ph.D. programs in photonics, and another 90 are in the undergraduate program. Courses are taught by 37 faculty members, and another 61 people are employed as research associates and technicians.

Robert Breault, founder and chair of Breault Research Organization in Tucson, has just returned from his 10th trip to Ottawa, where he participated in collaboration talks with Canadian and Mexican officials. Breault and other government and industry leaders are intent on making "a tricountry effort out of this."

Universities and Research Institutes

Well over 100 universities in the United States offer courses or conduct research in photonics. Many of these offer undergraduate or graduate degrees or both. Funding for research in photonics is abundant, thanks to the rich collaboration of industries, governments, and universities. A comprehensive list of the various institutes and universities involved in this field can be found on the Web pages of the International Society for Optical Engineering ( SPIE) or at The Optical Society of America ( OSA), with 21 local sections in the states and another seven worldwide, also provides a rich source of information and resources.

New photonics institutes and research centers pop up frequently. OE Magazine, published by SPIE, reported in April that the Florida state board of education has approved spending $10 million to establish the Florida Photonics Center of Excellence at the University of Central Florida (UCF). This is one of three new "centers of excellence" that Governor Jeb Bush's Emerging Technology Commission recommended be created. It follows a 1999 study done by the Florida High-Tech Corridor, an organization promoting Florida's high-tech industries, which found that there were 106 photonics companies clustered around UCF between the cities of Melbourne and St. Petersburg and 148 statewide.

Canada is also investing heavily in photonics. In January, Montreal's McGill University, along with a host of academic, government, and business partners, launched the Agile All-Photonic Network (AAPN). Made possible by a 5-year grant of CA$7 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), this new institute will train more than 100 students and postdocs over the next 5 years. The NSERC grant is intended mainly to pay the salaries of the students and researchers; it follows a CA$35 million grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which is paying for lab equipment. A major focus of AAPN, and of the global telecommunications industry in general, is to develop all-photonic networks, keeping the use of much slower electronic components to a bare minimum.


Photonics techniques are increasingly being applied in medicine and biology. For example, the interaction of light with human and biological cells is used to noninvasively detect specific tissues such as tumors. Light can also be used to change the properties of certain tissues and cells, allowing noninvasive treatments. DNA can be detected and sequenced using biophotonic methods. And photonics techniques are used extensively in medicine to improve visualization techniques. For more information on biophotonics applications, see a previous Next Wave article.

One major biophotonics research institute is located at the University of California, Davis. Funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology has a research program that consists of 28 interrelated projects involving 100 researchers. Current projects focus on the development of advanced optical microscopes, optical labels, light sources, optical sensors, and photosensitive materials. The center is also exploiting single-molecule detection methods to explore the mechanisms of basic biological interactions.

Research and development in biophotonics are very often major components of general photonics institutes. Funding for biophotonics--and for photonics in general--comes from a variety of sources, an indication of how pervasive the discipline has become. In 1996, in another example of U.S.-Canadian photonics collaboration, the U.S. Department of Defense implemented a Defense Appropriations Act to provide $75 million for the Breast Cancer Research Program at Photonics Research Ontario (PRO), located at the University of Toronto. "Part of the reason that the U.S. Department of Defense funds this type of research," explains Guida NéNé, manager of marketing and communications at PRO, "is that they have many people in the Army [who] either get breast cancer, or someone in their family does, and it ends up costing them a lot of money. As a preventive measure, they are funding this type of research."

Microphotonics and Nanophotonics

Although photonics-driven communications technology has the potential to make the world a smaller place, science and technology are also making photonics devices smaller. Nanotechnology, another big scientific industry with great potential, has joined forces with photonics. Microphotonics and nanophotonics research is important in industries where miniaturization is a critical concern, such as microelectronics, computing, and telecommunications.

Spending on nanotechnology R&D is skyrocketing. Mihail Roco, chair of the White House/National Science and Technology Council/Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee and a senior adviser for NSF, was quoted in the July 2002 edition of OE Magazine as saying that "global governmental funding for nanotechnology R&D has jumped from $432 million in 1997 to $2154 million in 2002." Roco estimates that the worldwide annual industrial production for this sector will exceed $1 trillion in 10 or 15 years.

One research center that has seized upon the promising future of miniaturizing photonics is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Three years ago, the Microphotonics Center at MIT and Nanovation Technologies Inc. established a world-class center specializing in microphotonics and nanophotonics. Its goal is to develop technologies that will increase Internet speed, possibly by a factor of hundreds, by increasing the capacity and bandwidth of telecommunications devices.

Another site brimming with activity is Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, which is in the final stages of building a new nanotechnology facility funded by the U.S. Department of Energy: the Center for Nanoscale Materials. One of the main themes of this center will be nanophotonics, already a well-established research field at Argonne. Research will focus on subdiffraction-limit properties of photons, the development of new nanostructures for light sources, and the spectroscopy and photochemistry of nanostructures and nanoparticles.

The Future of Photonics

The list of industries that are making direct use of photonics technology is impressive. Outside of telecommunications and medicine, photonics is prevalent in industrial manufacturing, energy and lighting, environmental applications such as remote sensing of the atmosphere and oceans, and the security industry, to name just a few.

Despite the recent downturn in the economy, the future looks bright for photonics researchers. "Our graduates are not having a problem finding a job," says James Wyant, director of Arizona's OSC. "This is surprising, considering the economy, but there seems to be a good need for optics graduates." Ali Adibi, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is also not overly concerned about the economy's impact on photonics. "In the long run, the prospect is good. The market will recover in 2004," he predicts. Adibi believes that the industry will pick up as soon as inventories from the boom days are depleted. Breault, too, is positive about the future. "The photonics industry in some regions has been flat," he admits, "but [it] is coming back."

Indeed, Breault's efforts at forging international links between companies are helping the industry rebound. "Company to company, we are trying to sell to each other, collaborate, and do mergers or joint ventures," he explains. With the Tucson-Ottawa meetings, for example, "we want their [Ottawa's] companies to expand here, and they want ours to expand there. So we try to do both. If we know of a growing company here that is thinking of expanding, we fill them in and push them toward Ottawa, and Ottawa tries pulling." Breault is also trying to increase the visibility of the Canadian photonics industry by pushing for an international conference on clusters in Ottawa in October 2004, and for OSA and SPIE to hold three meetings a year in Canada. All this will give photonics greater international exposure, result in more photonics-related business, and create more jobs at the ground level.

"You Never Stop Training"

Photonics follows a trend in modern scientific research in that it is highly multidisciplinary. Because progress in this field is so rapid, it can be a challenge--albeit a rewarding and stimulating one--to stay on top of new developments and to broaden one's knowledge base as photonics combines with other fields.

"In this job you never stop training," admits Tim Rutkevich, an optical technologist at Toronto's PRO, who got started in photonics as an undergraduate participant in a co-op work-study program at Canada's University of Waterloo. "You have to keep on reading magazines, articles, keep posted on what other people do ... look for a technology that is just coming out, then see if it is of interest to you ... [and] always be aware of the adjacent technologies."

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