3. Optics and photonics have become established as enabling technologies for a multitude of industries that are vital to our nation’s future.

Accordingly, the National Research Council’s Committee on Harnessing Light: Capitalizing on Optical Science Trends and Challenges for Future Research undertook a new study to examine the current state of the art and economic impact of optics and photonics technologies, with an eye toward ensuring that optics and photonics continue to enable a vibrant and secure future for U.S. society.


Optics and photonics, an enabling technology with widespread impact, exhibits the characteristics of a general-purpose technology, that is, a technology in which advances foster innovations across a broad spectrum of applications in a diverse array of economic sectors. Improvements in those sectors in turn increase the demand for the technology itself, which makes it worthwhile to invest further in improving the technology, thus sustaining growth for the economy as a whole. The transistor and integrated circuit are good examples of general-purpose technologies. The importance of photonics as an enabling technology since 1998 can be highlighted by a few examples:

• A cell phone can enable video chats and perform an Internet search, with optics and photonics playing a key part. The most obvious contribution of optics is the high-resolution display and the camera. In addition, the cell phone uses a wireless radio connection to a local cell tower, and the signal is converted to an optical data stream for transmission along a fiber-optic network. An Internet search conducted on the phone will be directed over these fibers to a data center, and in a given data center clusters of co-located computers talk to each other through high-capacity optical cables. There can be more than 1 million lasers involved in the signaling.

• People are surrounded by objects whose manufacture was enabled by highly accurate directed-energy light. For example, nearly every microprocessor has been fabricated using optical lithographic techniques, and in nearly all advanced manufacturing, high-power lasers are used for cutting and welding.

• Optics is rapidly changing medical imaging, making it possible not only to see with higher resolution inside the body but also to distinguish between subtle differences in biological material. Swallowed capsules can travel through the body and send images back to a doctor for diagnosis. Today, the relatively young field of optical coherence tomography has the potential

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