On Friday, German football club FC Bayern Munich will have its first game in the kickoff of the second round of the Bundesliga. Five players are COVID-19 positive, including Manuel Neuer, their famous goalkeeper. They will probably still win the game, just like they won the last five games. And they will win the championship this year as they have done for the last eight years.
For the laser and photonics industry, the outlook is not very different. Laser manufacturer Trumpf, for example, recorded in 2021 an increase of 0.5% in sales figures to 3.5 billion Euro. With 3.9 billion in the order book, they look optimistically into the future.
The German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association VDMA is also cautiously optimistic: “… we are not yet back to pre-Corona levels, but we are steadily approaching them,” said their president Karl Haeusgen in October 2021. For 2022, they increased their forecast from 5 to 7% growth based on the solid backlog of German companies. It remains unclear how much the chip crisis and incidents such as a recent fire at the local ASML subsidiary Berliner Glas will affect further supply chain issues.
“Within the last two years, we have seen a lot of uncertainty in the laser industry. But the demand for laser systems for materials processing has grown at a significant double-digit rate in 2021 to reach a new all-time high,” commented market analyst Dr. Arnold Mayer from Optech Consulting on general market development. A detailed discussion of trends within the market for industrial laser systems will be given at the Laser & Photonics Marketplace Seminar (LPMS) on January 24th, 2022. I will conduct a panel discussion there under the headline “What’s happening and what to expect” with experts from Europe, Asia, and America.
Three science cases to watch in 2022
Looking back on the year 2021, there are a few photonics-related science cases that may be a sign of what’s to come. First, IBM’s quantum research team reported a 127-qubit quantum processor. The remarkable fact here isn’t the construction of a bigger system, nor is it the announcement of the next steps toward an even bigger quantum computer. The important point is that they stuck to their roadmap as published in September 2020. According to the roadmap, they want to establish a 1000-qubit chip by the end of 2023. It may take a 20,000X-stronger system to break conventional encryption, but if the quantum community keeps pace we may see real quantum applications before 2030.
Laser fusion could become even more important. In August 2021, the National Ignition Facility achieved a record of 70% conversion from laser input to output energy. This relates to the world’s most pressuring question: How can we generate more energy within a smaller carbon footprint? I wonder if we’ll see more successful experiments in 2022. More experiments and a deeper understanding of the plasma physics would be marvelous. Still, a myriad of problems must be solved before laser fusion contributes to the power grid. There’s a saying that fusion power is just 20 years away and it always will be. We might get closer than that.
One thing that will—hopefully—send us marvelous pictures in 2022 is NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). It launched successfully on December 25th. It will take two weeks to conduct 50 major deployments for the Webb observatory. The sunshield tensioning is underway. The older among us may remember the problems the Hubble telescope faced—let us hope no space repairs are needed. Hubble is orbiting Earth at a height of 540 km (333 miles). JWST is not orbiting earth, it is already 800,000 km away and will circle the sun in a position 1,500,000 km (930,000 mi) beyond Earth’s trajectory. That’s what makes the deployment phase so exciting. It's happening now and you can follow along with project updates on NASA’s JWST news page.
Science and industry are facing a lot of uncertainty in 2022. A very practical example for most of us is the photonics event schedule. SPIE Photonics West and LPMS are planned as onsite events just three weeks from now. I can’t tell if I will be there or not. Flights are being canceled repeatedly; immigration (or quarantine) rules can change any time. Such uncertainties are annoying, but one event more or less won’t change anything. There are more business events coming up within the next few months, and there will be onsite meetings. I am looking forward to being there, communicating directly, and doing business as before. There is no warranty for any event to take place, but I think we have reason for a cautiously positive outlook.