Executive Summary: Introduction to the Field and the Issues
The Field of Optics
We live in a world bathed in light. We see with light, plants draw energy from light, and light is at the core of technologies from computing to surgical techniques. The field of optics, the subject of this report, concerns harnessing light to perform useful tasks.
Light influences our lives today in new ways that we could never have imagined just a few decades ago. As we move into the next century, light will play an even more significant role, enabling a revolution in world fiber-optic communications, new modalities in the practice of medicine, a more effective national defense, exploration of the frontiers of science, and much more.
We are beginning to see the fruits of the scientific discoveries of the last three or four decades. The development of the laser in the 1960s produced light with a property never seen before on Earth: coherence. Coherent light can be directed, focused, and propagated in new ways that are impossible for incoherent light. This property of laser light has made possible fiber-optic communications, compact disks, laser surgery, and a host of other applications—in all, a multitrillion-dollar worldwide market. Applications of incoherent light abound as well, including optical lithography systems for patterning computer chips, high-resolution microscopes, adaptive optics for Earth-based astronomy, infrared sensors for everything from remote controls to night vision equipment, and new high-efficiency lighting sources.
Although optics is pervasive in modern life, its role is that of a technological enabler: It is essential, but typically it plays a supporting role in a larger system. Central issues for this field include the following:
How to support and strengthen a field such as optics whose value is primarily enabling; and
How to ensure the future vitality of a field that lacks a recognized academic or disciplinary home.
This report is the product of an unprecedented effort to bring together all aspects of the field of optics in one assessment organized around national needs. The report reviews the field's status today, assesses the outlook for tomorrow, and considers what must be done to assure the field's future vitality.
Optics and National Needs
Because optics applications are everywhere, this report is selective rather than comprehensive. It highlights areas where breakthroughs are taking place, where rapid change is likely in the near future, and where national needs dictate special attention. The field is largely defined by what it enables; as a result, applications drove the structure of the study and the report, which is organized around seven major areas of national need: (1) information technology and telecommunications; (2) health care and the life sciences; (3) optical sensing, lighting, and energy; (4) optics in manufacturing; (5) national defense; (6) manufacturing of optical components and systems; and (7) optics research and education. Some issues connected with these areas are outlined here. Some specific recommendations may be found in the Overview. More detailed conclusions on each area will be found in the chapters dedicated to those areas.
Information Technology and Telecommunications
In information technology, progress during the past decade has been extraordinary. For example, optical fiber for communications is being installed worldwide at a rate of 1,000 meters every second, comparable to the speed of a Mach 2 aircraft. Just 10 years ago, only 10 percent of all transcontinental calls in the United States were carried over fiber-optic cables; today 90 percent are. Meeting the computing and communications needs of the next 10 to 20 years will require advances across a broad front: transmission, switching, data storage, and displays. Many capabilities will have to advance a hundredfold. Although institutions have access to this rapidly growing, high-speed global telecommunications network, the infrastructure is not yet in place to provide individual consumer access that fully exploits the power of the system.
Health Care and the Life Sciences
In medicine, optics is enabling a wide variety of new therapies, from laser heart surgery to the minimally invasive knee repairs made possible by arthroscopes containing optical imaging systems. Optical techniques are under investigation for noninvasive diagnostic and monitoring applications such as early detection of breast cancer and ''needleless" glucose monitoring for people with diabetes. Optics is providing new biological research tools for visualization, measurement, analysis, and manipulation. In biotechnology, lasers have become essential in DNA sequencing systems. Optics is playing such an important role in the life sciences and medicine that organizations concerned with these disciplines need to recognize and adjust to these developments.
Optical Sensing, Lighting, and Energy
Advances in lighting sources and light distribution systems are poised to dramatically reduce the one-fifth of U.S. electricity consumption now devoted to lighting. Innovative optical sensors are augmenting human vision, showing details and revealing information never before seen: infrared cameras that provide satellite pictures of clouds and weather patterns; night vision scopes for use by law enforcement agencies; infrared motion detectors for home security, real-time measurements of industrial emissions, on-line industrial process control, and global environmental monitoring. High-resolution digital cameras are about to revolutionize and computerize photography and printing, and improvements in photovoltaic cells may permit solar energy to provide up to half of world energy needs by the middle of the next century. These developments will affect energy and environmental concerns on a national scale.
Optics in Manufacturing
Optics has had a dramatic economic influence in manufacturing, particularly since the advent of reliable low-cost lasers and laser-imaging systems. Optical techniques have become crucial in such diverse industries as semiconductor manufacturing, construction, and chemical production. Every semiconductor chip mass produced in the world today is manufactured using optical lithography. Just making the equipment for this business is a $1 billion industry, and it ultimately enables a $200 billion electronics business. Other applications include laser welding and sintering, laser model generation, laser repair of semiconductor displays, curing of epoxy resins, diagnostic probes for real-time monitoring and control of chemical processes, optical techniques for alignment and inspection, machine vision, metrology, and even laser guidance systems for building tunnels. Optics can play an important role in ensuring a healthy U.S. manufacturing enterprise.
In national defense, optical technology has become ubiquitous, from low-cost components to complex and expensive systems, and has dramatically changed the way wars are fought. Sophisticated satellite surveillance systems are a keystone of intelligence gathering. Night vision imagers and missile guidance units allow the U.S. armed forces to "own the night." Lasers are used for everything from targeting and range finding to navigation, and may lead to high-power directed-energy weapons. The Department of Defense has a significant stake in optics.
Manufacturing of Optical Systems and Components
As the impact of optics has increased, changes have become necessary in how optical components and systems are designed and made. The manufacture of mass-market optics is now dominated by companies in Asia, but some recent developments are enabling U.S. industry to recapture selected market segments. One example is the emergence of new classes of numerically controlled optical grinding and polishing machines. Another is a better understanding of the characteristics of optical materials, from glasses to polymers to metals, thus permitting broader use of these automated technologies. Advanced optical components cannot be considered commodity items, and even though they represent only a small fraction of the value of the optical systems they enable, their availability is essential for the success of new high-level applications that rely on those systems. The U.S. optics industry is currently strongest in the design and manufacture of high-performance specialty products. A key U.S. strength is in optical design, which is being revolutionized by the development of fast and affordable ray-tracing software. The United States can preserve a presence in world markets for optical components and systems by focusing on areas where domestic capabilities are strong and by addressing the process by which international standards are set.
Education and Research
Underpinning the explosive growth of optics are investments in education and research. Research continues to lead to extraordinary discoveries. Although the field is growing rapidly and its impact is both pervasive and far-reaching, it remains a "multidiscipline" with components in many university departments and government programs. The presence of optics in these diverse programs reflects its pervasiveness but also reveals an Achilles' heel. Trends and developments in optics can easily be missed in such a disaggregated enterprise. Educational and research organizations will need to pay close attention to ensure that the field develops in a healthy way that ensures continuing benefits to society.