Frontiers in industrial and applied physics

24 March 2014

The American Physical Society and AIP just concluded their third joint Industrial Physics Forum (IPF) held in Denver, March 4–6, as part of the APS March Meeting. The IPF was organized jointly by the APS Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics (FIAP) and AIP’s Corporate Associates. The chair of the program planning committee was Dave Seiler from NIST, vice chair of FIAP and past chair of the Corporate Associates Advisory Committee. Dave and his planning committee organized an unprecedented seven invited sessions over three days around the theme, “Frontiers in Industrial and Applied Physics.” The talks featured speakers, primarily from the private sector, who illustrated the diverse ways in which physics and physicists are contributing economically in the private sector. The speakers from government labs and academia demonstrated how innovation and economic growth in the United States are driven by the complex R&D ecosystem in which industry, government, and higher education interact in robust and productive ways. 

IPF SpeakersAttendance at the IPF sessions testified to how important it is to bring a concentrated industrial perspective into scientific meetings. While APS meetings have always included speakers from the private sector, sessions are not often devoted entirely to speakers from industry to talk about physics in their companies. March Meeting attendees responded enthusiastically to the IPF, with attendance averaging around 150 per speaker. Many speakers nearly filled the room with 300–400 attendees. 

The organizers took the opportunity of this IPF to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID). Much like the solid-state transistor, which was invented at Bell Labs, and the integrated circuit (Texas Instruments), the SQUID is an extremely impactful invention from a corporate research laboratory. The SQUID came out of General Motors Research & Development, and is yet another example of corporate-funded research resulting in a broadly applied, hugely successful invention based on fundamental physics. Similar to other devices, the SQUID has been used for applications far beyond GM, and the IPF illustrated its broad utility. For example, Kent Irwin from Stanford described how the SQUID is used in photon detection devices for measurements in such diverse settings as astronomy and materials science. On the industrial side, Catherine Foley, from CSIRO in Australia, told of the SQUID’s critical importance to the Australian economy, facilitating the discovery of minerals such as silver. 

IPF press conferenceLasers, SQUIDs, transistors, and so many other economically transformative devices are examples of the role played by central industrial research labs in the 20th century. The role of industrial physics research has evolved considerably over the past 20 years, and this was the topic of a press briefing held as part of the IPF. The briefing featured representatives from companies that have historically had major research labs (IBM, Texas Instruments, and Dow Chemical). They had broad-ranging discussion of the role of physics and physicists in their companies’ successes, and how that role is evolving with their companies’ changing priorities for and management of research. 

The IPF was also very popular among students. The final session was a panel discussion of speakers from a variety of companies, including IBM, Agilent, Schlumberger, Asylum Research, Intel, and Texas Instruments. Students, excited about their own prospects for a career outside of academia, had many questions about how to make the leap from academia to industry, dominating the Q&A period. 

The IPF also gave the Corporate Associates Advisory Committee (CAAC) an occasion to meet. CAAC is unusual among AIP’s advisory committees, in that it plays a major role in planning programs—in this case, partnering with Member Societies to plan IPFs. The primary focus of this CAAC meeting was to look ahead to IPF Brazil (September 28—October 3, 2014, at the University of Campinas) and to choose a location for our first IPF in 2015. The CAAC enthusiastically accepted a proposal from AVS to co-organize an IPF at the October 2015 AVS meeting in San Jose, CA, with a focus on industrial applications of the growing field of mesoscale physics.