You just got a new cellphone, but before you know it you’re seeing ads for the next gen model and you haven’t even figured out how to change the background of your current phone. It might seem like the progression of technology is a relentless juggernaut. However, the truth is it takes a lot to keep innovation moving and many of today’s best tools happen to take advantage of the new advancements in photonics, an ever growing field.
Take the task of handling the growing mass of data on the internet for example. Let’s say you spent a minute reading this post. Well, according to Intel in that minute the world could have listened to 31,773 hours of music, shared 3.3 million pieces of content on Facebook, or watched 138,889 hours of videos on YouTube! This explosion of data wouldn’t be possible without photonics. That is, lasers to create super-highways of information, high-speed modulators to pack the data onto these highways, fiber optical cables to send photons crisscrossing the globe, and detectors to convert photons back to electrons for our computers to read.
What’s amazing is that for nearly four decades scientists and engineers have been able to discover better and faster ways to send data with light, which has been one of the key reasons why the internet has been able to grow the way that it has. For example, if we were to get our hands on the recently announced high-speed single laser transmitters from the Technical University of Denmark, we would be able to achieve a record breaking data transmission of 43 Terabits per second (that’s 43 trillion ones and zeros) over a single fiber or equivalent to sending the Avatar Blu-ray DVD in just 8.8 seconds!
Photonics is also making its mark in new fields like autonomous vehicles. Take a look at Google’s self-driving car and you will notice a large cone on the roof spinning around at hundreds of revolutions per minute. That cone is actually a Velodyne laser system designed to create an image of the environment by measuring the distance between the car and nearby objects using a technique called light illuminated distance and ranging or LIDAR. This is much like microwaves and RADAR, but due to the wavelength of light it is hundreds of times smaller than that of microwaves used in commercial RADAR systems. The images LIDAR creates have far better resolution. But there’s a catch: LIDAR systems can be very expensive. The Velodyne system Google uses on their self-driving car costs three times as much as the car itself ($80k)! Luckily, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley might have a solution. By integrating all the photonic components of a typical LIDAR system into a semiconductor chip the size of a quarter, they think they can significantly cut down on the cost and size of these systems.
There are many more amazing innovations in photonics that are poised to change the way we live and work. However, getting scientific discoveries from the lab to the field has always been a difficult task due to the lack of infrastructure, funding or a qualified workforce to bridge this gap – also known as the ‘valley of death’. That is why the recent announcement by the White House for the creation of a photonics focused Institute for Manufacturing Innovation is not only exciting, but crucial. The Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation (IP-IMI), supported by the National Photonics Initiative (NPI), will be a $220M program headed by the U.S. Department of Defense with matching funds from industry. The goal is to develop an industrial commons that will serve as a central hub for research and innovation in photonics.
The United States isn’t the only country thinking about how to strategically invest in photonics. The European Union invested nearly €460M euros on photonics research under the EU Framework 7 Programme and will likely continue under their new research and development plan, Horizon 2020. China also sees photonics as an important field for not only advancing its manufacturing capabilities, but also to discover new disruptive technologies. In a recent interview, the chief scientist of China’s National Basic Research program stated that Chinese investment in optics and laser related programs has increased 20% and is now at a staggering $3.2B.
From powering the internet to being a key technology in the automation revolution, there is a lot that photonics can do and I haven’t even mentioned energy efficient lighting, noninvasive health monitoring, or even mapping the universe! Let’s be ready for it by thinking about how to apply these ideas to today’s challenges and making future policies that will help us leverage tomorrow’s innovations.
Yan Zheng is a technology consultant in the field of microelectronics and photonics. He supports U.S. government agencies in developing innovative technologies. Dr. Zheng regularly works with universities, small businesses, and government laboratories on projects aimed at addressing the needs of the commercial sector and national defense.