5 grand challenges that will boost future optic, photonic technology

National Research Council calls for "National Photonics Initiative"

from the NSF
Scientists with the National Research Council say that the development of photonic and optic technologies is key to the future of the United States and as such the government should create a "National Photonics Initiative" to more quickly advance the equipment, applications and tools for greater research and development.

A new report from the National Research Council defines research priorities and challenges that would fill gaps in optics and photonics, technologies that have the potential to advance the economy of the United States and provide visionary directions for future technology applications. 

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 "Much is unknown when pursuing basic optical science and its transition to engineering and ultimately to products, but the rewards can be great," said Alan Willner, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. "There are a number of opportunities that could change our daily lives," he wrote in a statement.

A small anecdotal indication in the popular press of the breadth and depth of the field is that roughly 12 of the 50 best inventions of 2011 listed by Time magazine had optics as a key technological part of the invention, the scientists noted.

"People do not think of Google as an optics company, but a typical Google data center has more than a million lasers in it," added Paul McManamon, technology director of the Ladar and Optical Communication Institute at the University of Dayton and committee co-chair.  "The Internet example is only one case where work in optics and photonics may be a small part of the money invested in research, but is a critical enabler for high-tech businesses and jobs."

The report went on to say that a National Photonics Initiative will help manage the scope of rapidly expanding applications of photonics technologies, letting government and the industry form strategies for technology development and deployment.  The initiative should also "spearhead a collaborative effort to improve the collection and reporting of research, development, and economic data," the scientists stated. 

There are challenges of course to making optics and photonics a research priority.  The report" Optics and Photonics: Essential Technologies for Our Nation" detailed what it called five grand challenges facing the nation that can be addressed with advances in optics and photonics technology.  From the National Research Council report, which goes much deeper into each topic, the five challenges are:

1. How can the U.S. optics and photonics community invent technologies for the next factor of-100 cost-effective capacity increases in optical networks?

It is not currently known how to achieve this goal, but the world has experienced a factor-of-100 cost-effective capacity increase every decade thus far, and user demand for this growth is anticipated to continue. Unfortunately, the mechanisms that have enabled the previous gains cannot sustain further increases at that high rate, and so the world will either see increases in capability stagnate or will have to invent new technologies.

2. How can the U.S. optics and photonics community develop a seamless integration of photonics and electronics components as a mainstream platform for low-cost fabrication and packaging of systems on a chip for communications, sensing, medical, energy, and defense applications?

In concert with meeting the fifth grand challenge [below], achieving this grand challenge would make it possible to stay on a Moore's law-like path of exponential performance growth. The seamless  integration of optics and photonics at the chip level has the potential to significantly increase speed and capacity for many applications that currently use only electronics, or that integrate electronics and photonics at a larger component level. Chip-level integration will reduce weight and increase speed while reducing cost, thus opening up a large set of future possibilities as devices become further miniaturized.

3. How can the U.S. military develop the required optical technologies to support platforms capable of wide-area surveillance, object identification and improved image resolution, high-bandwidth free-space communication, laser strike, and defense against missiles?

Optics and photonics technologies used synergistically for a laser strike fighter or a high-altitude platform can provide comprehensive knowledge over an area, the communications links to download that information, an ability to strike targets at the speed of light, and the ability to robustly defend against missile attack. Clearly this technological opportunity could act as a focal point for several of the areas in optics and photonics such as camera development, high-powered lasers, free-space  communication, and many more in which the United States must be a leader in order to maintain national security.

4. How can U.S. energy stakeholders achieve cost parity across the nation's electric grid for solar power versus new fossil-fuel-powered electric plants by the year 2020?

The impact on U.S. and world economies from being able to answer this question would be substantial. Imagine what could be done with a renewable energy source, with minimal environmental impact, that is more cost-effective than nonrenewable alternatives. Although this is an ambitious goal, the  committee poses it as a grand challenge question, something requiring an extra effort to achieve. Today, it is not known how to achieve this cost parity with current solar cell technologies.

5. How can the U.S. optics and photonics community develop optical sources and imaging tools to support an order of magnitude or more of increased resolution in manufacturing?

Meeting this grand challenge could facilitate a decrease in design rules for lithography, as well as  providing the ability to do closed-loop, automated manufacturing of optical elements in three dimensions. Extreme ultraviolet (EUV) is a challenging technology to develop, but it is needed in order to meet future lithography needs. The next step beyond EUV is to move to soft x-rays.

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