The scientific market for lasers has been a mainstay of optics and photonics ever since the laser was invented . . . so much so that if you look back over Laser Focus World’s yearly market review, basic research has consistently ranked as the number three market for nondiode lasers-accounting for laser sales of $156 million in 2006 (see page 67). This despite typical annual single-digit market growth rates that can, at best, be considered only lackluster. Nonetheless, the scientific laser business has been fundamentally important to the photonics research community and to the laser makers. It’s been a proving ground for emerging laser devices and a “training ground” for researchers and engineers before they venture into industry.
During the past decade or so, the market has changed, however. Originally centered mostly on basic (“blue sky”) research, it’s focus is now more on applied research-an evolution driven by commercial reality. Both private and public funding sources (like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation) have demanded more accountability and a return on their investment.
Such changes didn’t come easily and their impact on laser makers was huge-an attitude of “if we build it they [researchers] will come” had to give way to one of customer focus. But laser products are now more robust and easier to use . . . and have facilitated other changes within the market. Today’s researchers who use lasers can be divided into two camps-those who like lasers with knobs to twiddle and those who don’t. The former generally are working at the extremes of laser performance like those on our cover (see page 15); while the latter want just the proverbial “light bulb” that enables them to perform, for instance, bioimaging with multiphoton microscopy (see page 79), or single-molecule spectroscopy (see page 97). For 2007, the scientific laser market is forecast to grow 5% . . . an uninspiring number that belies the exciting advances that emerge from scientific laser research.