Everyday Devices That Wouldn’t Be Here Without the Field of Photonics

By | January 15, 2014

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Photonics is a simple term that came into common use in the 1980s. Most of us can surmise what it represents utilizing the simple derivations of etymology. A photon is a light quantum or a unit of light, and -ics references the aspect of study and technology. In essence, photonics represents the study and design of systems and devices that rely upon the transmission of streams of photons. In the application of Electronic Warfare, the definition as given by the National Research Council (NRC) in their report on photonics reads, “Photonics is concerned with the use of photons to work with or to replace electrons in certain applications traditionally carried out by electronics.”

Early Evolution of Photonics
The field of photonics followed the introduction of the laser in 1960, which contributed to the development of the laser diode, fiber-optics and the Erbium-doped fiber amplifier. This is what allowed for the modulation and amplification of photon streams, leading to the advanced study of electromagnetic energy. This was accomplished by incorporating electrical engineering, laser technology, optics, materials science and the storage and processing of information. The use of light to transmit information not only revolutionized telecommunications in the latter half of the 20th century, it became the formal infrastructure for what we now know as the Internet.

Following the Progression of Technological Advancements
Prior to 1900, the field of optics included such tools as the reflecting mirror and refracting lens, which relied on principles that did not depend upon quantum light properties. Quantum optics is but one of the many connotations that science and government have contributed to the market. Opto-electronics combined both optical and electrical functions and gave us the semiconductor. Earlier electro-optics involved imaging sensors and crystal modulators typically associated with surveillance devices used by government agencies and civilian organizations. The integration of opto-atomics saw the introduction of applications used in precision navigation, precision timekeeping like that used in atomic clocks and metrology.

A Cavalcade of Invention
From the invention of the transistor in 1948 to the ubiquitous semiconductor market, photonics encompasses every conceivable field. Aside from the vast realm of information processing, here are just some of the everyday applications that have resulted from the applied research and development of photonics:

– Agriculture
– Biophotonics
– Robotics
– Photonic Computing:

  • Printed circuit boards
  • Communication between computers
  • Integrated circuits
  • Clock distribution

– Telecommunications:

  • Fiber-optics
  • Optical downconverter to microwave

– Entertainment:

  • Holography
  • Laser shows
  • Beam effects for everything from lightsabers to depth
  • CRTs
  • Plasma screens

– Consumer Equipment:

  • The optical mouse
  • Barcode scanners
  • Remote control devices
  • Laser printers
  • Compact and digital video discs (CD/DVD)
  • Blu-ray technology

– Industrial Manufacturing:

  • CNC routing
  • Welding
  • Cutting
  • Drilling
  • Countless methods for surface modification

– Metrology:

  • Rangefinders
  • Means of frequency and time measurements

– Medicine:

  • Diagnostics
  • Spectroscopy
  • Endoscopy
  • Vision correction
  • Health monitoring
  • Tattoo removal

– Construction:

  • Leveling and range-finding through the use of lasers
  • Optical plumbing
  • Smart structures capable of using power sources, sensors, signal processors, actuators and a communications network to sense and react to the surrounding environment in a desired, predictable manner

– Aviation:

  • Gyroscopic technology
  • Fiber optic cable infrastructure
  • Lidar, or laser radar

– Military:

  • Command and control
  • Search and rescue
  • IR sensors
  • Mine laying
  • Navigation
  • Detection

Neither a light wave nor a particle of light, the photon actually possesses the nature of both as the entire spectrum of light is utilized in a myriad of applications. As it relates to quantum information, this emerging science will very soon allow us to perform quantum computing. There are virtually no limits to what will continue to evolve through the application of photonics.

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