New Report on Optics and Photonics

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Publication date: 
13 September 2012


A  National Research Council committee has just released a major report, “Optics  and Photonics: Essential Technologies for Our Nation.”  Issued fourteen years after the last major  study on optics and photonics, this new  report provides a comprehensive overview of developments in optical science, describes  five grand challenges, and outlines a roadmap to achieve U.S. global leadership  in optical science and its applied technologies.

This  280-page report is available in a prepublication version.  It was written by the 16-member  Committee on Harnessing Light: Capitalizing on  Optical Science Trends and Challenges for Future Research, co-chaired by Paul  McManamon of Exciting Technology, LLC; and Alan Willner of the University of  Southern California.   Oversight was  provided by the Manufacturing and Engineering Design Board, Division on  Engineering and Physical Sciences.   Additional information on the committee is available here.

The  National Science Foundation supported this study through a contract with the  National Academy of Sciences, with funding also provided through awards from  DARPA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Army Research  Office, the Department of Energy, and the Air Force Office of Scientific  Research.  Support was provided by the NRC;  the Optical Society, a Member Society of the American Institute of  Physics; and the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), an AIP  Affiliated Society.

The  Statement of Task for the Committee is as follows:

“1.  Review updates in the state of the science that have taken place since  publication of the National  Research Council report, Harnessing Light;

“2.  Identify the technological opportunities that have arisen from recent advances  in and potential  applications of optical science and engineering;

“3.  Assess the current state of optical science and engineering in the United  States and       abroad,  including trends in private and public research, market needs, examples of translating  progress in photonics innovation into competitiveness advantage (including       activities  by small businesses), workforce needs, manufacturing infrastructure, and the impact  of photonics on the national economy;

“4.  Prioritize a set of research grand-challenge questions to fill identified  technological gaps in  pursuit of national needs and national competitiveness;

“5.  Recommend actions for the development and maintenance of global leadership in  the       photonics-driven  industry – including both near-term and long-range goals, likely participants,  and responsible agents of change.

In  carrying out this charge, the committee will consider the materials necessary  for the technological  development of optics.”

The  important role of optics and photonics as an “enabling technology” is reflected  in the report’s organization.  Following  an introduction and a chapter on the “impact of photonics on the national  economy,” the report is divided into the following chapters: communications,  information processing, and data storage; defense and national security;  energy; health and medicine; advanced manufacturing; advanced photonic  measurement and applications; strategic materials for optics; and displays.   One of the report’s four appendices provides  an extensive review of additional technology examples employing optics and  photonics.

Each  of the chapters provides an overview of existing and emerging applications  based on research in optics and photonics.   A theme running through many of these chapters is that of U.S. dominance  in optical-dependent technologies being challenged by foreign competitors.  Each chapter has a set of key recommendations  by the committee to develop and/or maintain U.S. leadership in these fields.

Building  on these recommendations are five grand challenges: capacity increases in optical  networks, seamless and low-cost fabrication of integrated photonics and  electronic components, improved military optical technologies, cost parity for  solar power and new fossil fueled generating plants, and increased resolution  in manufacturing.   A good summary of  each chapter, key recommendations, and the grand challenges can be found in the  report’s seven page summary that starts on page S-1 in the prepublication  version of the report.  The Optical  Society has prepared a summary of this report.  SPIE has both videos and a report summary  here.

Overarching  these findings and recommendations is the committee’s call for a National  Photonics Initiative.  A briefing  document explains that it “will help manage the breadth of rapidly expanding  applications of photonics technologies . . . allowing both government and  industry to form coherent strategies for technology development and deployment.  The recommended initiative should also  spearhead a collaborative effort to improve the collection and reporting of  research, development, and economic data on this sector.”

In  commenting on this initiative, Co-Chairman McManamon stated: "The impact  of optics and photonics on U.S. technology leadership is substantial; this is a  critical reason to support a National Photonics Initiative. Optics and  photonics facilitates many technology areas and is therefore critical to U.S.  high-tech competitiveness.  A National  Photonics Initiative will ensure that we make full use of these  technologies."