This dramatic vision, together with recommendations to help the nation's research
community maximize the potential of optical science and engineering, were presented during
the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics and the International Quantum Electronics
Conference, held at the Lab on May 6.
Director Charles Shank, chair of the Research Council's Committee on Optical Science
and Engineering--a group of academic and industry leaders which spent three years
conducting a comprehensive assessment of the field of optics--summarized the progress made
in the field over the last decade and presented a vision of its future. The result of
their efforts: "Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st
Century." (An overview of the report can be downloaded from the Web in PDF format;
the file is 1,950K.)
Since the development of the first laser in 1960, optical science has
impacted the global economy in countless ways--in fiber-optic communications,
manufacturing, and imaging. Shank said optics promises to revolutionize the fields of
communications, medicine, energy efficiency, defense, manufacturing, and the frontiers of
science into the next century.
"There are about 5,000 optics-related companies with a financial impact of more
than $50 billion annually," he said. "But that number is insignificant compared
to what optics has spawned as an enabler. An investment of a few hundred million dollars
in optical-fiber technology has leveraged a trillion-dollar worldwide communications
And that is only the beginning. The report envisions major advances in
telecommunications, in disease diagnosis and therapy, in electric lighting efficiency, in
semiconductor manufacturing, and in defense surveillance and guidance systems.
But realizing this vision will take a reordering of research priorities, better
coordination among agencies and industries engaged in optical science, and federal
leadership in focusing the efforts of the research community. Some of the key areas
identified by the report for particular focus of optics research in the coming years
- Information technology and telecommunications: Around the world, optical fiber is being
installed at a rate of 1,000 meters every second. By the year 2005, about 600,000
kilometers of fiber optic cable will cross the oceans--enough to encircle the Earth 15
times. It will eventually be feasible to extend these networks all the way to individual
homes, resulting in high-speed data and video transmission. But many research and
manufacturing capabilities will have to advance a hundred-fold to achieve this vision. The
report recommends that Congress "challenge industry and the federal regulatory
agencies to ensure the rapid development and deployment of a broadband fiber-to-the-home
- Health care and life sciences: Building on present capabilities for laser surgery and
non-invasive diagnostic methods, optics holds great potential for laboratory and clinical
health care. In the future, for example, people could have personal health monitors that
can evaluate the optical properties of their blood and tissue.
But, according to the report, fundamental science that would lead to such innovations is
presently incomplete, and the disease-oriented structure of the National Institutes of
Health "does not encourage the growth of biomedical optical technology
programs." The report urges increased public and private investment in this area, as
well as a stronger focus by the NIH.
- Optical sensing, lighting, and energy: Lighting accounts for almost 20 percent of total
electricity use. New lamps and light sources could greatly reduce annual consumer
electricity bills in the U.S., in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy
use around the world. The committee recommended that public and private agencies
coordinate efforts to create a single program for lighting efficiency with the goal of
reducing America's consumption of electricity for lighting by a factor of two over the
next decade and saving up to $20 billion a year in energy costs.
- National defense: Optics continue to play an indispensable role in defense programs and
promise even greater capabilities in the areas of weapons targeting and detection of
biological and chemical warfare agents. The report encourages the Department of Defense to
make a greater investment in the research areas of photonics, sensors, and high-powered
The report recommends that multiple agencies support optics as a cross-cutting
initiative, similar to recent efforts in high-performance computing, and that the National
Science Foundation develop an agency-wide initiative to support multidisciplinary research
and education in optics.
"We expect the field of optics to become a discipline, as computer science has
over the past few decades," the report concludes, "and to become recognized as
such in educational institutions around the world."
The study was funded by the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and
the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Copies can be ordered from the
National Academy Press by telephone at 800-624-6242.