The economic impact of light-based technologies

2015 is the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. For the sake of brevity, we often omit the “light-based technologies” part when talking about the year, but those three words describe a €300 billion market and a range of components and products that underpin our modern existence. But what are these technologies, and how did they come to be such a significant market?


Early example of impact from light-based technology?. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The impact of light runs right through history. The story of Archimedes holding back the Roman fleet by focussing sunlight with mirrors is a tempting place to start, but unfortunately it seems unlikely to have happened (see A more tangible example might be found in the history of glassmaking, dating back thousands of years as early technologists learned to melt sand with potash and other ingredients to create a new material which changed the appearance of the light passing through it. This process added value to raw materials. Artisans and early scientists alike produced objects of pure beauty and functionality, sometimes together, from bright jewellery to dazzling stained glass windows through to new instruments, microscopes and telescopes, for seeing the small and the far away. In the process new markets and industries were created and demand for these grew and they went from the rare to the everyday.


Early industry based on transmission of light at selected wavelength – Stained glass windows at Canterbury Cathedral. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

These industries are still very much alive today and sales of optical components are worth around $4bn, but they form only a small part of the total market for light-based technologies. Some market segments are perhaps easier to grasp than others. For example, most people in the developed world would have some understanding of the $120bn lighting market, which has seen incandescent bulbs replaced by compact fluorescent bulbs and now increasingly by LEDs and, not too far from now, by OLEDs. Other segments though are perhaps less obvious, but are highly significant. Part of the reason for this is the underpinning nature of much of the technology.  Photonics, the science and technology of generating, controlling, and detecting photons, is recognised by the European Commission as a “Key Enabling Technology”. In the United States, its status as an enabling technology has also been recognised, leading to a National Photonics Initiative.

The smartphone provides a good example of the underpinning nature of photonics. Doing something as commonplace and apparently straightforward as checking email on a phone requires a multitude of photonics technologies. Starting with the phone itself, lasers are used to pattern and drill the circuit boards inside, to cut the display glass, to fabricate the display, to pattern the touchscreen and a whole lot more. Electrons inside the phone are converted to photons which are sent to a nearby cell tower and the core network thanks to James Clerk Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The photons are converted back to electrons and then to photons again where they travel via fibre optic cable to a data centre. Here, silicon photonic technology is being used to replace copper with fibre and increase bandwidth.


Replacing copper with light – a silicon photonics wafer. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We could measure the economic impact in the above example by looking as the market size for the lasers used in smartphone manufacture and the fibre optic cables and connectors used in the network and data centre. However, without photonics the smartphone wouldn’t even be possible so perhaps we should include the $270bn smartphone market, and since the vast majority of communications use fibre optics perhaps we should even include the value of the entire internet!

The impact of light-based technologies goes further. Worldwide revenue from the flat panel displays in our televisions, monitors, and, increasingly, phones, is estimated at $180bn. Other significant markets include production technology, medical/life science, and optical components. The $300bn market size quoted at the start of this article applies only to the photonics industry, the wider economic impact enabled today by light-based technologies is vastly greater.

It seems certain that the economic impact of light-based technologies will increase in the years to come. The markets mentioned above are forecast to grow, and new photonics markets will emerge. The drive for higher bandwidths and greater efficiencies will see optical technology take an even greater share in the internet, with light no longer stopping at the data centre but continuing into the server rack, and perhaps ever further into integrated circuits themselves. Light-based technologies will also play their part in the next quantum revolution, bringing unprecedented control over light and matter, opening up new, undreamt of applications and markets. Light-based technologies are already significant today, but have the potential to be revolutionary tomorrow.

More Information

IYL site economic impact:

Coherent article on lasers in smartphone manufacture:


Thanks to the many people that gave inspiration and help for this article, particularly Dr Richard Mosses of the Scottish Optoelectronics Association for additional material on early technologies and inspiration throughout. Any errors are mine alone.

Market sizes given are estimated based on multiple sources and are given for the purposes of illustration only.

wasleyMat Wasley is Business Development Manager for the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA).  He graduated in Physics from the University of Bath and started his career in the Defence Research Agency (now QinetiQ), moving from applied research to project management and business development. He then joined the Defence Diversification agency, which had a remit to translate technology developed for defence applications into the civil market. In 2005, Mat joined the University of Birmingham and was involved in a variety of knowledge exchange activities. He moved to Scotland in 2010 to take his current role, centred on maximising the impact of physics research in Scotland.


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