as cancer treatment or welding. The principal value of a product is not always attributed to the optical technologies associated with the product’s applications. For example, developing new biological materials, such as fluorescent proteins,2 that have new optical characteristics is associated more with new advances in biotechnology than with optical imaging.

This chapter outlines the role that strategic materials play in the development of new optical phenomena in specific categories of applications, outlines a few key technological problems that need to be solved to enhance the impact of these materials on the evolution of those applications, and, finally, identifies a set of challenges that need to be addressed by policy makers to support the research needed to solve the technological problems.3


The Sun has been identified as one of the primary sources of alternative energy as the United States transitions from a fossil-fuel-driven energy infrastructure in the next 20 years. However, for solar energy to become a viable and cost-effective source, its price needs to drop significantly. As discussed in Chapter 5, energy critical elements (ECEs) were identified as extremely important for the development of thin-film photovoltaics (TFPV), which will be instrumental in meeting cost targets. The ECEs are critical because of their limited supply in the United States. Gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, silver, and tellurium are all critical elements for development of TFPV. A challenge for the United States in connection with the ECEs is to determine whether there is a need to produce them in the United States as opposed to relying on a foreign supply.4 For example, most of the easily extractable lithium in the world is localized in South American countries. Lithium is present in most of the promising battery technologies being produced and developed, and access to this material could be restricted by government intervention.

Several of the exotic elements required by emerging solar technologies rely on joint production methods, which pose another potential risk to scale-up. These


2 The 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded jointly to Martin Chalfie, Osamu Shimomura, and Roger Y. Tsien “for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, gfp.” More information is available at Accessed May 31, 2012.

3 For further discussion of strategic materials, such as erbium and other rare earths, see National Research Council. 2012. The Role of the Chemical Sciences in Finding Alternatives to Critical Resources: A Workshop Summary. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

4 American Physical Society (APS) and Materials Research Society (MRS). 2011. Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies. A report by the APS panel on public affairs and the MRS. Available at Accessed February 10, 2011.

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