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Many ways to harness light

The national headquarters of American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics will be in Rochester. But what exactly is photonics?

Experts describe photonics as the science of harnessing light. It enables technology in nearly every industry in the 21st century—with largely no downsides to its applications.

It is also nothing new. 

Photonics has been around since Sir Isaac Newton was the first to understand light’s color spectrum nearly 350 years ago. It helped Theodore Maiman invent the laser in 1960 when the term photonics was coined. Photos is the Greek word for light.

Examples of photonics applications today include smartphone screens, computers, lasers, sensors, semiconductor lenses, solar panels and military products such as night vision goggles.

Photonics is a technology-enabling science. It supports technology by:

  •  collecting information;
  •  displaying information;
  •  distributing information; and
  •  collecting energy.

The reach of the field of photonics is so vast it incorporates multiple subsets, including integrated photonics, which is the focus of the new AIM Photonics.

Integrated photonics is the combination of two or more photonic devices into a single piece of semiconductor or a single small package of multiple devices, local experts explain. Integrated photonics is a small part of overall photonics.

Examples of integrated photonics include lithography, thin film deposition and etching.

“The goal of integrated photonics is to replace some of the functions that are currently performed using electronics with photonics,” said Paul Ballentine, executive director of the Center for Emerging and Innovative Sciences at the University of Rochester. “The classic example, and the one that AIM is heavily focused on, is replacing electronic datacom and telecom devices with photonic devices.”

Photonics can be considered a subset of optics, which is defined as the science and application of light in which light is treated as waves, local experts say. For electronics to work properly, photonics and optics are necessary.

The Rochester region to date has focused on an approach to photonics that centers on the fabrication of optics. In Monroe County alone, the invention of the digital camera, the color filter array and the organic light-emitting diode helped to advance the field of photonics.

Today, the need for information and data in professional and personal lives of individuals has only increased with the Internet. By converting an electrical signal to an optical signal, photonics will enable data to move at the speed of light in the near future, experts predict.

“If you think of 3.00×108 m/s (the speed of light) you can chop that up into a whole lot of little pieces to get information into it,” said Christopher Cotton, chairman of the Rochester Regional Photonics Corp. “It’s not so much the speed of communication as much as the density of communication.”

Data centers need fiber optics to increase speed, reduce power and reduce the number of cables, which sometimes limits the amount of information you can get into and out of servers, Ballentine said. That is why changing to an optical signal makes sense, he said.

“It’s a big deal, given the rapid growth of the cloud,” he said.

Light-based communication also will reduce costs.

“Optical communication has been around for a long time, but the photonic devices at the ends of the fiber optic are expensive, so fiber optic communications has been limited to long distances, starting with transcontinental and trans-ocean applications,” Ballentine said. “But with integrated photonics, you can replace shorter cables with optical fibers. The ultimate goal is to replace very short runs, from chip-to-chip on a printed circuit board, with optical signals.”

Electrical designs have reached their limits; a light-based transfer of information is the only way to keep up, experts said.

With the implementation of a light-based system, computers will be 100 times faster. Military aircraft and satellites will weigh much less. On the battlefield, instead of radio signals, if you have a light beam it can be directed at one person to ensure that person is the only one with the sensitive information.

“There are a number of people that see photonics as being the next phase of how devices will operate,” said Michael Richardson, distinguished researcher at the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at Rochester Institute of Technology. “You can only move electrical signals so fast, and finally you start to hit a brick wall, and so the idea is if you want to do things even faster, the next phase is to go to a light base.”

“This is cutting edge—we’re not playing catch-up relative to other areas,” he added.

Photonics is the science that will position the United States for future technological advances, Cotton said. It comes down to information.

“Information is the way of the future,” Cotton said. “Information is what people are going to be buying and selling; that’s what gives value, and so the ability to move information from one place to another quickly and easily is very important.”

The need for new infrastructure, capital investments and access to rare earth materials are the only concerns for the burgeoning industry.

Entering the field of optics or photonics almost guarantees a job these days, Cotton said.

“I don’t know anyone who’s got an optical engineering degree who’s out of work,” he said. “And I don’t know of any talented optical technicians that are out of work. It’s an underserved technology from that standpoint. There’s not enough people in the industry.”

There are no real downsides to photonics, area experts said. Rochester has a chance to lead photonics and its development on a global scale.

“I think it’s fantastic; it’s exactly the type of thing you’d like to have in your backyard,” Richardson said.

4/1/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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