FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

New Report on Optics and Photonics

Richard M. Jones
Number 118 - September 13, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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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 of America, 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 of America 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."

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics