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Optics and photonics

Optics and photonics

Why optics is critical to meeting society’s grand challenges

24 Jun 2024

Jolyon De Freitas says that the ubiquity of optics and photonics in the coming decades will provide many challenges but ample opportunities too

Fibre optics
Lighting the way The UK-based Photonics Leadership Group estimates that by 2035 more than 60% of the UK economy will directly depend on photonics to keep it competitive. (Courtesy: iStock/MorePixels)

Over the last century, optics and photonics have transformed the world. A staggering 97% of all intercontinental communications traffic travels down optical fibres, enabling around $10 trillion of business transactions daily across the globe. Young people especially are at the heart of some of the most dramatic changes in optical technologies the world has ever witnessed.

Whether it’s a growing demand for higher data rates, larger cloud storage and cleaner energy supplies – or simply questions around content and self-censorship – communications networks, based on optics and photonics, are a crucial aspect of modern life. Even our knowledge of the impact of climate change comes mostly from complex optical instruments that are carried by satellites including spectrometers, narrow linewidth lasers and sophisticated detectors. They provide information that can be used to model key aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, landforms and oceans.

Optics and photonics can also help us to monitor the behaviour of earthquakes and volcanoes – both terrestrial and underwater – and the risk and impact of tsunamis on coastal populations. The latter requires effective modelling together with satellite and ground-based observations.

Recent developments in optical quantum technologies are also beginning to bear fruit in areas such as high-resolution gravimetry. It allows tiny changes in subsurface mass distributions to be detected by measuring the spatial variations in gravity, and with it the movement of magma and the prediction of volcanic activity.

The challenge ahead

The UK-based Photonics Leadership Group (PLG) estimates that by 2035 more than 60% of the UK economy will directly depend on photonics to keep it competitive, becoming one of the top three UK economic sectors. PLG projects that the UK photonics industry will increase from £14.5bn today to £50bn over that period. The next 25 years are likely to see further significant advances in photonics, integrated circuits, far-infrared detector breakthroughs, free-space optical communication and quantum optical technologies.

There are likely to be breakthroughs in bandgap engineering in compound-semiconductor alloy technologies that will let us easily make and operate room-temperature very-long-wavelength infrared detectors and imaging devices. This could boost diagnostic medical imaging for management of pain, cancer detection and neurodiagnostics.

The joint effort between photonics and compound semiconductor materials science will become a significant capability in a sustainable 21st century and beyond. Defence and security are also likely to benefit from long-range spectroscopic identification of trace molecules. Optics and photonics will dominate space, with quantum technologies coming into service for communications and environmental monitoring, even if the proliferation of low-Earth-orbiting space objects are likely to cause congestion and hamper direct line-of-sight communications and monitoring.

Such developments, however, don’t come without their challenges, especially when adapting to the pace of change. Optics has a long history in the UK and the evolving nature of the subject is similar to that faced over a century ago by the Optical Society, Physical Society and the Institute of Physics (see box below).

Education will be key and making undergraduate courses attractive as will having a good balance of optics, photonics and fundamental physics in the curriculum. Making sure that students get experience in photonics engineering labs that reflect practical on-the-job tasks will be crucial as will close partnerships with the photonics industry and professional societies when aligning course content with the needs of the photonics industry.

Postgraduate photonics research in the UK remains strong, but we cannot rest on our laurels and it must be improved further, if not expanded.

Another challenge will be tackling the gap in optics and photonics advances between low-income nations and those that are high-income. These include access to optics and photonics education, research collaborations and mentoring as well as the need to equip developing nations with optics and photonics expertise to tackle global issues like desertification, climate change and the supply of potable water.

Desertification exacerbates economic, environmental and social issues and is entwined with poverty. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, 3.2 billion people worldwide are negatively affected by spreading deserts. The International Commission for Optics is working with the International Science Council to tackle this by offering educational development, improving access to optical technologies and international collaborations with an emphasis on low-income countries.

If I had a crystal ball, I would say that over the next 25 years global economies will depend even more on optics and photonics for their survival, underpinning tighter social, economic and physical networks driven by artificial intelligence and quantum-communication technologies. Optical societies as professional bodies must play a leading role in addressing and communicating these issues head on. After all, only they can pull together like-minded professionals and speak with one voice to the needs and challenges of society.

Why the Optical Group of the Institute of Physics is the UK’s optical society

The Optical Group of the Institute of Physics, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, can trace its roots back to 1899 when the Optical Society of London was formed by a group of enthusiastic optical physicists, led by Charles Parsons and Frank Twyman. Until 1931 it published a journal – Transactions of the Optical Society – which attracted several high-profile physicists including George Paget Thomson and Chandrasekhara Raman.

Many activities of the Optical Society overlapped with those of the Physical Society of London and they held several joint annual exhibitions at Imperial College London. When the two organizations formally merged in 1932, the Optical Group of the Physical Society became the de facto national optical society of the UK and Ireland.

In 1947 the Physical Society – via the Optical Group – became a signatory to the formation of the International Commission for Optics, which is now made up of more than 60 countries and provides policy recommendations and co-ordinates international activities in optics. The Optical Group is also a member of the European Optical Society.

In 1960 the Physical Society merged with the Institute of Physics (IOP), and today, the Optical Group of the IOP, of which I am currently chair, has a membership above 2100. The group represents UK and Irish optics, organizes conferences, funds public engagement projects and supports early-career researchers.

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