COSE report calls for increased collaboration
The multidisciplinary field of optics has become a pervasive enabler for many of the key technologies that affect modern life and is poised to stimulate far-reaching changes in coming decades, according to Charles Shank, chair of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Optical Science and Engineering (COSE). Yet the same multidisciplinary and enabling aspects of optics that have played a key role in its successes to date also present barriers to be overcome before optics, particularly in the United States, can reach its potential.
After three years of assessing the current state and future prospects for the field of optical science and engineering, Shank`s committee delivered its report--Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century--last month. Shank gave a preview at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO) in San Francisco, CA. The published report will soon be available from the National Academy Press.
"Optics is an extraordinarily strong and dynamic field," Shank said. "In a few important areas, however, action is needed to overcome barriers that might slow the present pace of rapid progress."
Ironically, the primary barriers that need to be overcome exist only as a result of the same highly innovative diversity that has made commercial and academic optics endeavors in the USA so productive.
"There are about 5000 optics-related companies with a financial impact of more than $50 billion annually," Shank said. "But that number is insignificant compared to what optics has spawned as an enabler. [For instance,] an investment of a few hundred million dollars in optical-fiber technology has leveraged a trillion-dollar worldwide communications revolution."
Sustaining the growth caused by that synergy and extending it to other areas will require collaborative networks among the many industrial, academic, and government entities that contribute to the development of optical technology, according to the COSE report.
The committee examined the state of optics and how best to support its continued growth in seven key areas: optics in information technology and telecommunications; optics in health care and the life sciences; optical sensing, lighting and energy; optics in national defense; optics in industrial manufacturing; manufacturing optical components and systems; and optics research and education.
Key questions asked were how to support and strengthen a field such as optics, whose value is primarily enabling, and how to ensure the future viability of a field that lacks a recognized academic or disciplinary home.
According to the COSE report, as technological advances reduce the cost of optical components, it will eventually be feasible to extend fiberoptic telecommunication networks from their current termination point in the local telephone office all the way to the end user. The COSE recommendation for making this feasibility a reality was that the US Congress provide direction to industry and federal regulatory agencies "to ensure the rapid development and deployment of a broadband fiber-to-the-home information infrastructure. Only by beginning this task now can the United States position itself to be the world leader in both broadband technology itself and its use in the service of society," said the report.
In the area of health care and the life sciences, the committee recommended that the National Institutes of Health establish a study section dedicated to understanding the importance of optical science in biomedical research; raise the priority of funding innovative optical technologies for medicine and medical research; and launch an initiative to identify the optical signatures of human biological processes and substances for application to noninvasive monitoring.
In the area of optical sensing, lighting and energy, the report recommended that the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Electric Power Research Institute, and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association create a single program to develo¥new lighting sources and delivery systems--with the goal of saving $10 billion to $20 billion per year in energy costs by reducing US consumption of electricity for lighting by a factor of two over the next decade.
In the area of national defense, the report called upon the Department of Defense (DoD) to "stress investment in R&D on key optical technologies such as photonics, sensors, and high-power tunable lasers to gain maximum defense competitive advantage." The report also recommended that the DoD pay special attention to investment in low-cost manufacturing of precision aspheric, diffractive, and conformal optics.
The recommendation to focus on optics manufacturing was not limited to military applications, however. Recommended steps for improving US manufacturing capabilities include exploiting the US lead in low-volume production of high-precision aspheric components by developing cost-effective methods of producing them in volume.
The US optics industry currently consists primarily of small, specialized, and innovative companies that are strongest in the design and manufacture of high-performance specialty products, according to the report. The manufacture of mass-market optics, however, is currently dominated by Asian countries, and virtually all recent standards have been produced by overseas industry.
The committee applauded recent collaborative efforts between professional and trade organizations representing different parts of the optics industry in the United States. It also called for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to lead US government and industry into active participation in setting international standards for optical components.
In evaluating both the use of optics in industrial manufacturing and the state of optical research and education, the committee also called for more collaborative efforts. "We expect optics to become a discipline as computer science has over the past few decades and to become recognized as such in educational institutions around the world," the committee wrote.