Harnessing the power of light

If you`ll pardon my play on words, optics is a technology that is often out of sight. Optics is the enabler that makes the CD player, the laser printer, the mass production of microprocessors, and the widespread use of fiberoptic networks possible, yet their optics and the light they transmit are not usually visible to the user. As a result, optical science and engineering often does not get the attention it deserves. So says a new report from a distinguished panel of scientists and engineers, H

Jul 1st, 1998

Harnessing the power of light

Jeffrey Bairstow

Grou¥Editorial Director

jeffb@pennwell.com

If you`ll pardon my play on words, optics is a technology that is often out of sight. Optics is the enabler that makes the CD player, the laser printer, the mass production of microprocessors, and the widespread use of fiberoptic networks possible, yet their optics and the light they transmit are not usually visible to the user. As a result, optical science and engineering often does not get the attention it deserves. So says a new report from a distinguished panel of scientists and engineers, Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century (National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1998; call 1-800-624-6242 or www.nap.gifdu). Yet, as the report points out, the use of optics is pervasive in many fields.

"There are about 5000 optics-related companies with a financial impact of more than $50 billion annually," says Dr. Charles V. Shank, chairman of the National Research Council`s Committee on Optical Science and Engineering and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "But that number is insignificant compared to what optics has spawned as an enabler," says Shank. "An investment of a few hundred million dollars has leveraged a trillion-dollar worldwide communications revolution." As former US Senator Everett Dirksen was fond of saying when talking about government spending, "A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you`re talking about real money."

Saving money with efficient optics

And the report does talk about real money. For example, the report says that lighting accounts for about 19% ($40 billion) of the total annual electricity use in the USA. A national program to enhance the efficiency of new lighting sources and delivery systems could see a realizable goal of cutting the US consumption of electricity for lighting by a factor of two over the next decade, thus saving about $10 billion to $20 billion per year in energy costs. For example, the replacement of red traffic lights with new red LED lights is expected to save us about $175 million annually within the next few years.

Among the other key recommendations of the report:

Congress should challenge industry and federal agencies to ensure the rapid development of a broadband fiber-to-the-home network.

The National Institutes of Health should raise the priorities for funding innovative optical technologies for medicine and medical research.

The Department of Defense should stress investment in R&D on key optical technologies to gain maximum defense competitive advantage.

Participation in the DARPA-sponsored Precision Laser Machining Consortium should be extended to a wider range of manufacturing companies.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology should become a leader in the development of international optics standards.

Optics as a discipline

The report also made several recommendations to encourage multidisciplinary research and education by the universities, the professional societies, and the National Science Foundation. "We expect the field of optics to become a discipline," the report concludes, "as computer science has over the past few decades, and to become recognized as such in educational institutions around the world."

As might be expected from a committee where three-quarters of the members are from academia or government laboratories, there is a great deal of emphasis on encouraging government agencies and universities to take a lead in the promotion and development of optical science and technology. Very little is said in the report about the role of private industry, apart from a few general exhortations. Maybe this is as it should be because companies are, and should be, driven by market interest. For example, it seems to me that networks offering fiber to the desk and fiber to the home are inevitable given the rapidly increasing information needs of both businesses and individuals.

Nonetheless, this is an important report and it deserves to be widely read throughout academia, government, and industry. I agree with the report when it says that "we expect optics to change our world." In fact, optics has already changed our world with fiberoptic telecommunications and optical storage devices for computers. This is an exciting time to be involved in optoelectronics: even greater changes are in store, many of them enabled by harnessing light.

More in Research