Photonics: Harnessing the Power and Speed of Light

Forget those pokey copper wires — the optical network and the technology of photonics is the medium of the future. The electronics industry underlies most of our present technology, but electronics has nearly reached its speed limit. As the demand for faster speed grows, the need for systems based on photonics grows. Photonics, a $170 billion-a-year industry and one of the fastest growing high-tech industries in the world today, is the technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science of photonics includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. This practical application of light is the technology cornerstone of the future. Just as emerging developments in electronics beginning in the 1960’s laid the groundwork for an explosion of innovative products, services, and entirely new industries in the late 20th century, so photonics is providing a broad foundation for new opportunities as we enter the new millennium. Photonic devices and applications underlie new developments in such diverse industries as telecommunications, health care, aerospace, business equipment, consumer electronics, and entertainment.

This breakthrough technology transmits data, video, and voice in the form of light over glass, instead of using electrons over copper — the method of choice since the telephone was invented more than 100 years ago. Because light on glass is startlingly more efficient, it is increasing the capacity of communications systems by staggering amounts. A single optical fiber is able to carry the equivalent of 300,000,000 simultaneous telephone calls. With the latest optical technology, a single strand of fiber thinner than a human hair can now carry every phone call, e-mail, and web page used by every person in the world. Combine that kind of speed with the omnipresence of the Internet, and the implications are profound.

For example, downloading a digital movie today takes more than seven hours over the fastest cable modem. With an optical connection, it could be done in four seconds flat. By replacing copper cables with glass, new photonic networks can span the globe with light highways linking cities, countries and continents and capable of transmitting information via multiple channels of different wavelengths. This new photonic technology enables, for the first time, sufficient capacity to meet the forecast demand for fully interactive, multimedia internet services. Now, a fiber strand can be split into 80 or even 160 different colors, each capable of carrying its own stream of data. And the speed at which bits flow along the fiber-optic cables has increased.

All told, technological improvements have boosted the capacity of a strand of fiber 18,000-fold, to 800 gigabits or more, over the past 20 years. And more big innovations are on the way. The photons that carry information on the optical network still have to be converted into electrical format to be regenerated and sent over even greater distances. That slows down traffic, and it’s expensive. Telecommunications companies are racing to build optical gear that will eliminate the need for most optical-to-electrical conversions. As optical technology pushes deeper into the mainstream of modern life, it is bound to have a profound impact on the way people live their daily lives. The real importance of optical technology transcends the technology itself, and will have wide-ranging implications.

Photonics is also having a major impact in the medical and biotechnology fields. Biophotonics has many applications in the fields of medicine, genetics, biology, agriculture and environmental science. It has a history of success in solving clinical and research problems through such products and techniques as spectroscopy, lasers, microscopy, imaging and fiber optics. An explosion of advances in biophotonics is opening up new possibilities for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Advanced medical instrumentation, new approaches to minimally invasive surgery based on photonic imaging technologies, and light-activated pharmaceuticals are just a few of the emerging opportunities.
Prepared by Western Carolina University, College of Applied Sciences, March 2001
Sources:, The Photonics Dictionary, The Photonics Center at Boston University, Australian Photonics CRC, University of Pittsburgh Physics and Astronomy Dept., SUNY Institute of Technology Photonics Program, Business Week