Bigger than telecom?

The telecom boom at the turn of the century served to awaken the photonics industry to the potential of the "killer app" and whetted many appetites for more.

Aug 1st, 2004

The telecom boom at the turn of the century served to awaken the photonics industry to the potential of the "killer app" and whetted many appetites for more. So it's no surprise that since the telecom collapse the search has been ongoing for the next killer app in photonics. The most frequently mentioned candidate for this dubious honor is bio-optics (or biophotonics), with some observers forecasting that not only will the application of optics and photonics to biomedicine be the next killer app, but that it will actually be bigger than was telecom.

While those of us who lived through the telecom bubble learned to be extremely wary of forecasts, the sheer breadth of bio-optical applications certainly lends credence to this particular prediction. Besides the best-known bio-optical applications like photorefractive surgery, evolving opportunities include optical devices for noninvasive diagnostics (such as measuring the concentration of glucose in the blood), and molecular imaging technologies that can help identify pre-cancerous cells. And there's no shortage of funding, in some areas at least. Pharmaceutical companies are dependent on developing a steady stream of new drugs as patents on existing medicines run out—so drug discovery is big business and is providing big opportunities for photonics—even giving "old" technologies like flow cytometers a new lease on life as novel laser technologies emerge (see cover and p. 69).

The latest generation of ultrafast lasers, meanwhile, offers hands-free turnkey operation with performance optimized to specific applications including biology. These developments are broadening the appeal of what was once a very hands-on laboratory-only source. Such lasers offer an optimal source for multiphoton excitation microscopy (see p. 86). Yet another imaging technique with important biological applications is confocal microscopy, which is discussed on p. 120.

The bubble may have burst but telecom still accounts for more than $1 billion of annual photonic component sales worldwide, making it the third largest application for lasers alone. And development continues, albeit at a slower pace and with a different emphasis than a few years back. One continuing challenge has been the lack of component standardization—an issue being addressed in several ways including multisource agreements for standardized optical modules (see p. 114]).

Stephen G. Anderson
Associate Publisher/Editor in Chief
stevega@pennwell.com

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