National Report Predicts Optics Revolution

May 15, 1998

By Ron Kolb,

Harnessing the properties of light will lead to a technology revolution that could have a pervasive impact on life in the next century, according to a new report by a committee of the National Research Council.

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 revolution."

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 include:

  • 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 information infrastructure."
  • 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 tunable lasers.

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.

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