Lasers rule Photonics West 2010

SAN FRANCISCO, CA--It isn't surprising that lasers would rule Photonics West 2010--especially since 2010 marks the official 50th anniversary of the laser.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA--It isn't surprising that lasers would rule Photonics West 2010--especially since 2010 marks the official 50th anniversary of the laser. From the dazzling display of laser lights, laser magicians, and video of James Bond's scrape with an industrial laser in Goldfinger at the all-conference 'Cirque du Lasaire' reception on Monday night, to the historic laser display in the North Hall exhibit area from Tuesday through Thursday, to the impressive National Ignition Facility tour for those lucky few on Thursday afternoon, lasers were indeed the talk of San Francisco during SPIE's Photonics West conference. Held January 23–28 for the first time at The Moscone Center, the larger venue was required to keep pace with (and provide space for) the whopping 18,327 attendees--up 2.5% from last year.

With 3600 paper presentations and 1142 exhibiting companies (including 178 Biomedical Optics or BiOS exhibiting companies), it was hard to figure out what to see and do first. But a good place to start on Monday was the Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar (www.marketplaceseminar.com), held in conjunction with Photonics West each year, providing a comprehensive overview of the 'State of the Laser Industry' from a market and technology perspective.

Pulse of the laser markets

Attendees to this year's Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar hopefully found the trek from The Moscone Center to the Hilton San Francisco Union Square less painful as Steve Anderson, chief editor of Laser Focus World, and David Belforte, chief editor of Industrial Laser Solutions, proceeded to tell the audience that the worst of the 2009 laser industry downturn seemed to be over. Although the 2009 forecast called for an 11.3% drop in the overall laser markets, the actual 2009 drop was a dismal 24.1%; fortunately, the 2010 projection is for an 11.1% increase in laser sales worldwide--a welcome relief considering the gloom and doom of last year.

The Seminar program was eager to move beyond the past and instead focus on the resiliency of the laser industry, highlighting the many laser 'inventions' that continue to keep the market alive: Lasers for igniting fusion to fulfill the energy needs of the next generation (a talk on the National Ignition facility by former astronaut Jeff Wisoff of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory); Moving from CO2 lasers for materials processing to today's quantum-cascade lasers for homeland security and drug discovery (a presentation by Pranalytica CEO and Bell Labs alumnus Dr. C. Kumar N. Patel); Lasers for flow and image cytometry in biomedical research (presented by William Telford from the National Cancer Institute); And, among other presentations, green lasers for multitudes of applications in bio-optics and imaging and displays (a technology forum on green laser diodes, green fiber lasers, green DPSS and optically pumped semiconductor lasers, green disk lasers, and other laser types from representatives of Trumpf, Newport Spectra-Physics, IPG Photonics, Nufern, Coherent, and newcomer Kaai).

Red, blue, and yes green

And speaking of green lasers, the Marketplace Seminar wasn't the only place they were being discussed. In the Tuesday morning OPTO Plenary (Conferences this year were again labeled BiOS, OPTO, LASE, and MOEMS-MEMS), UCSB's Shuji Nakamura, pioneer of violet and blue laser diodes based on nonpolar and semi-polar gallium nitride (GaN) materials, discussed how his research laid the groundwork for a new 523 nm green laser diode just developed by Kaai.

But Nakamura's talk took on a more-than-technology tone when he explained how the U.S. needs to ban the incandescent light bulb and focus on LED lighting. He says that Panasonic already has a 60 W equivalent incandescent bulb in the form of a 6.9 W LED bulb that costs $50; however, Panasonic is targeting half that price in 2010. Nakamura thinks that LED bulbs will be commonplace in a few years, assuming prices can come down rapidly.

Nakamura was followed by Jeffrey Y. Tsao of Sandia National Laboratories, who also spoke on solid-state lighting (SSL). Tsao said that there are still many challenges to SSL manufacturers aiming to reach ideal luminous efficacy. He showed that SSL cost of lighting was on par with incandescent in 2008 and that it would be on par with fluorescent lighting by 2012.

More than lasers

But we all know that Photonics West is about much more than just lasers. Another big technology story in 2009 was the rise of solar photovoltaic (PV) energy. Yes, lasers are used in solar-cell materials processing, but the actual PV materials themselves (and the concentrating optics) are the big news for the photonics industry. The Tuesday afternoon Industry Events session entitled "Hot Markets in Photonics: Solar" was a very business-oriented session in which the first presenter Paula Mints, principal analyst at Navigant Consulting, pointed out that solar energy has been growing at a compound annual growth rate of 40% from 1974 to 2009, with prices falling from $9/W peak in 1983 to $2-$3/W peak in 2009 (but still far above the sub-$1 figures needed to replace conventional energy sources). Presenter Patricia Glaza from CTSI (www.ct-si.org) described how her organization is helping companies to speed up commercialization of renewable energy options and described how important federal and state subsidies are to maintaining a healthy PV industry.

Another good place to learn about more than just lasers was in the "Executive Perspectives on the World of Optics and Photonics" on Wednesday afternoon. I always attend this session, and enjoy seeing if the top brass of major companies in our industry have any exciting tidbits to reveal about the future of photonics. Sadly, I didn't hear many revelations in this year's presentation; however, a strong theme of the question-and-answer session was how, on the heels of the negative laser sales of 2009, companies needed to stay diligent in the research arena and continue to "invent" new products and technologies by utilizing their talented work force.

With layoffs big news in 2009, it was clear that company executives see a need to invest heavily in the new generation and be mindful of the need for photonics education for our youth. Hamamatsu's Ken Kaufmann said that we need to grow and fund our universities; Trumpf's Timothy Morris sees a real need for Webcasts and other laser educational forums so that lasers penetrate new applications; Edmund Optics' Robert Edmund said that the University of Arizona and the University of Rochester have excellent programs that push pre-college optics heavily; Newport's Dennis Werth pointed out that Junior Achievement programs should be pursued; And an audience member from II-VI pointed out is engineering high school program while another audience member reminded everyone that "we" all should have a role in photonics education by volunteering our time at our local grade school.

The next 50 years

So with 50 years of lasers behind us, the many presentations, exhibits, and special sessions at Photonics West (and record conference attendance) was a good indication that we will have another 50 years of laser development. Walking around the conference reception and the exhibit floor, there were many younger faces among the old timers; here's hoping that the laser innovations of these new faces will carry those old timers comfortably into retirement!

--Gail Overton

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