Overview of Optics and Photonics
The field of optics and photonics is all about light—pervasive, primordial, and life-giving. It is what enables us to see, and a source of energy and life.
From mirrors, first used thousands of years ago, to early seventeenth century lenses ground for the first microscopes and telescopes, to the first laser in 1960, to today's high-resolution microscopes and the revolutionary electron-beam nanolithography tool, the field of optics and photonics has served as a crucial enabler in the unfolding story of technological progress and innovation.
The field of optics and photonics, by its very pervasive nature, touches, enables, and accelerates the work of many divergent fields—electrical engineering, physics, chemistry, and material science. The National Research Council report on "Optical Science and Engineering for the Twenty-first Century" highlights some exciting trends:
Progress during the past decade has been extraordinary. Optical fiber for communication is being installed worldwide at a rate of 1,000 meters every second. 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 ten to twenty years will require advances across a broad front, and many capabilities will have to advance a hundredfold to keep pace with this rapidly growing, high-speed global telecommunications network.
Healthcare and Life Sciences
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. Optics is providing new biological research tools for visualization, measurement, analysis, and manipulation.
Over the next decade, optical techniques are expected to enable such breakthroughs as early detection of breast cancer and "needless" glucose monitoring for people with diabetes.
Energy and the Environment
Optics is enabling advances in lighting sources and light distribution systems, real-time measurements of industrial emissions, and global environmental monitoring. This field is also enabling dramatic advances in photovoltaic solar cells, a crucial alternative to conventional energy sources.
We are poised to dramatically reduce the electricity consumption devoted to lighting, presently claiming 20 percent of U.S. electricity consumption. Advances in photovoltaic cells may enable solar energy to provide up to half of the world's energy needs by the middle of the next century.
Optical technology has become a ubiquitous part of national defense. It enables sophisticated satellite surveillance systems for intelligence gathering, night vision imaging and missile guidance units, and lasers used for everything from targeting and range fielding to navigation.
Optical technology will continue to be crucial to national defense. The Department of Defense has a significant stake in optics, because of existing technologies, and future developments such as high power-directed energy weapons that this field affords.
Looking forward to the twenty-first century, the National Research Council report states, "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."
Optics and Photonics at Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech faculty members from many divergent academic disciplines are engaged in ground-breaking research in optics and photonics, a crucial enabling technology. Research in nine major areas represents points of intersection where Georgia Tech's world-class faculty members work in collaboration with each other, across five different schools (see sidebar) within the Institute and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). It is the interdisciplinary nature of research in optics and photonics at Georgia Tech that gives it its unique vitality and strength.