20 October 2014

Nine lessons from ‘clever’ nature that inspired photonics engineering

The great horned owl's eyes are among pheonomena from
nature that have helped inspire photonics engineering.
Spiders, fireflies, and pythons have all been responsible for inspiring solutions to challenges facing engineers working in light-based science and technology.

As Joseph Shaw, director of the Optical Technology Center at Montana State University, put it, “Nature has developed, very cleverly, some lessons on how to create the features that we desire in optical design.”

A highlight of the conference on Bioinspiration, Biomimetics, and Bioreplication at SPIE Smart Structures and Nondestructive Evaluation early each year in San Diego is a visit from an animal ambassador and handlers from the San Diego Zoo’s Centre for Bioinspiration. The center’s mission is to advance the creation and development of nature-inspired products and processes that benefit humanity, wildlife, and habitats. Past years’ animal visitors have included:

  • Monty the Python [video 6:46], whose heat-seeking olfactory structures and hooked underside scales have helped inform engineering of thermal sensors and of mechanical propulsion systems for robotic and other equipment.
  • Shaman the Great Horned Owl [video 12:56], whose large eyes are densely packed with receptors -- 1 million in each square millimeter, compared with 200,000 in the human eye – rendering the owl's daytime vision 6 times better and its night vision 10 times better, and providing ideas for improved optical displays.

A conference on The Nature of Light: Light in Nature chaired by Shaw and colleague Rongguang Liang of the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences last August at SPIE Optics and Photonics offered more examples:

  • Some insect wings have antireflective cone-like structures of a few nanometers that absorb virtually the entire visible spectrum, a team from the University of Namur (Louis Dellieu, et al.) reported, suggesting possible applications for camouflage.
  • Another team at Namur (Annick Bay, Alexandre Mayer) has developed a firefly-inspired structure for improving efficiency of LED lighting, using observations from how the bioluminescent organ of the firefly functions.
  • Using spiders, Bor-Kai Hsiung and other researchers at the University of Akron are studying how colors evolve to serve different functions, and how those colors are produced within a relatively simple system. They explored questions such as whether spiders use fluorescence as a mechanism to protect themselves from UV radiation, and what functions color serves for nearly blind tarantulas, outside of sexual selection.

In other recent research looking to nature for inspiration:

  • At the recent SPIE/COS Photonics Asia conference in Beijing, researcher Min Gu from Swinburne University of Technology talked about biomimetic photonics inspired by a recent finding in the study of butterfly-wing scales. By mimicking the microscopic structures, researchers from Swinburne and Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg have developed a device smaller than the width of a human hair that could help make optical communications faster and more secure.
  • Malte Gather of St. Andrews University explains how the DNA blueprint of fluorescent proteins in the cells of bioluminescent jellyfish [video 6:18] can be introduced into other organisms or structures, for example in micro lasers to speed up measurements being made by chemical sensors, and in future to create nontoxic cell markers for microscopy and add in disease diagnosis and treatment monitoring.
  • A team from Pennsylvania State University is developing decoys to blunt the spread of tree-killing emerald ash borer beetles. Their larvae feed on the sap of ash trees, killing by depriving trees of nourishment. Entomology professor Thomas Baker teamed up with the research group of engineering science and mechanics professor Akhlesh Lakhtakia to replicate biological structures such as fly eyes and butterfly wings. The groups developed a decoy that visually replicates the female borer, enabling researchers to trap the males to decrease breeding and thereby larvae.
  • Virginia Tech College of Engineering researchers have built a man-size, autonomous robotic jellyfish, a larger model of a previous robotic jellyfish built by the same team headed by Shashank Priya, professor of mechanical engineering. Jellyfish are attractive candidates to mimic because of their ability to consume little energy owing to a lower metabolic rate than other marine species, the researchers said. With no central nervous system, jellyfish instead use a diffused nerve net to control movement and can complete complex functions. "A larger vehicle will allow for more payload, longer duration, and longer range of operation," said Alex Villanueva, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering working under Priya.

More to think about as the photonics world gears up to observe the International Year of Light!

15 October 2014

Wanted: photonics ambassadors

Being an ambassador for the
International Year of Light
is easy -- and we hear that
it's fun as well.
Solving the challenges of the 21st century will depend as much on photonics as the 20th century's solutions depended on electronics.

Particles of light are the key ingredients for science and technology, from smartphones to medical imaging to synchrotrons. The United Nations’ International Year of Light initiative will show the world how optical and photonic technologies are vital to their futures and development of the whole society.

Some very big names have already gotten behind the initiative, and will be investing much time and considerable money in the effort. In addition to several professional societies who are Founding Partners, two companies and a professional society have signed on as Patrons, and a very long list of companies, research institutes, publications, universities, and associations are giving their support as well.

Even the Duke of York is getting involved, having declared his support as Patron in the UK.

And you, too, can be an ambassador for the International Year of Light! Here are a few ideas:

Nice IYL tie --
how can I get one?
  • Get your organization involved: Create an exhibit using a gallery of dazzling images displaying examples of the myriad wonderful things that light can do, and how it plays a critical role in our lives every day.
  • Give a presentation to a service group, classroom, youth group, or peer group, using a ready-built slide deck – and top it off with eight minutes of “terror” via the short video, “A Day without Photonics: a Modern Horror Story.”
  • Wear an IYL t-shirt, tie, or scarf. They’re not only attractive, but they'll help you tell the photonics story as well, by sparking conversation about why and how light plays such important roles in our lives.
  • Download the IYL bookmark and give one to all of the people in your life who read print-on-paper books – and drop off a supply at your local library or bookstore.
  • Print out an IYL poster for your workplace, dorm room, or classroom.

There are many other materials and resources available at www.spie.org/iyl to help you start your new ambassadorship – have fun! and keep it light ….

19 September 2014

Photons for inspiration, fuel -- and light!

The many properties of light have long provided
inspiration for SPIE CEO Dr. Eugene Arthurs.
Editor’s note: A green laser lighted the early career path of then-physics-graduate Eugene Arthurs, now CEO of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. Light from many sources continues to provide him with inspiration and direction, Dr. Arthurs writes in this blog post originally published in the International Year of Light blog, www.light2015blog.org.

Looking back, my career path was not determined by some grand plan, but rather by the beauty of the light from an argon ion laser in our Applied Physics department at Queen’s University Belfast. It wasn’t the science that the laser was bought for, Raman spectroscopy, or an understanding of how the laser would change the world, that drew me.

At the time I was soon to graduate with a physics degree – the first in my family history to get a science degree – and was interviewing with a local branch of IBM where my love of mathematics might give me an edge and where I might find stimulating work in Northern Ireland.

But fate intervened and I was seduced by the light, by the pure intense green beam, and lasers became my thing. Mentioning lasers also gave some sort of defense against the many enquiries from caring relatives on when was I going to get a real job.

Another indelible memory; an important insight came to me in 1980 when I was at the home of my boss at the time, Dick Daly, founder of an early laser company. It was the fall (autumn to some) on Long Island, New York, which meant leaves everywhere. Dick pointed to one of his huge piles of leaves and said with his characteristic grin, “One of my photon stores.”

The concept of storing photons was of great interest to laser jocks like Dick and me. Short-pulse high-power lasers benefit greatly from materials that can hold a lot of energy. But Dick’s observation was way beyond the world of lasers and has caused me to think since about the profound relationship between light and life.

The chloroplasts in leaves use the photons from the sun to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon. All of our forests, our plants have been busy “sequestering” carbon dioxide for hundreds of millennia, while tuning our atmosphere to be human-friendly.

It takes the energy from many photons to grow a leaf, but at the end of the day, what a leaf is, is mostly a carbon-based organic structure built by light. This lesson from one of my many mentors led me to realize that as all fossil fuels started as vegetation, we are burning our way through Earth’s store of photon energy from the sun, accumulated over 300 million years or more.

With many processes and great lengths of time, nature has stored this photon energy from leaves, wood and other biomass in high-density forms such as oil and coal. The high density is key to modern transportation, and collection of fuel for large centralized power plants.

Now we have a formidable challenge to capture and store solar energy arriving today in ways that will challenge nature’s gifts. Nature had all that time to store photons; our version of solar energy is more “real time.” But the sooner that solar becomes a significant part of the global energy mix, the better for our planet, for all of us.

Aside from SPIE, Dr. Arthurs is also a member of the Photonics21 Board of Stakeholders, where he is directly involved in the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 and the entity for a public-private partnership (PPP). Prior to these responsibilities, Eugene has held many positions at esteemed scientific technology organizations in both the US and Europe, and has served on several boards in the realm of optics, photonics, and scientific development.

12 September 2014

Ozone zone layer is recovering, satellite data says

Worldwide action to phase out ozone-depleting substances has resulted in remarkable success, according to a new assessment by 300 international scientists released on 10 September. The stratospheric ozone layer, a fragile shield of gas that protects Earth from harmful ultraviolet light, is on track to recovery over the next few decades.


The most current ozone hole satellite data comes from the Ozone Monitoring and Profiler Suite (OMPS) instrument on the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, known as Suomi NPP, and the Ozone Monitoring Instrument and Microwave Limb Sounder on NASA's Aura satellite. The full report will be available in early 2015.

Suomi NPP is part of NOAA’s next generation Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) constellation of polar-orbiting environmental satellites. Suomi NPP, launched in October 2011, provides continuity for NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS) and is a bridge between NOAA’s legacy Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites (POES) and the JPSS-1 satellite, now being built and integrated at the Ball Aerospace spacecraft manufacturing facility. NPP’s sensors have surpassed expectations for low noise and accuracy, and have provided useful data to forecasters beginning well before it gained operational status. Suomi NPP data, in conjunction with other polar weather satellite data, were essential to predicting the path of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy more than four days in advance. Suomi NPP extends the range of global forecasts three to seven days in advance of significant weather events.

In May 2014, NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service named Suomi NPP as its primary operational polar-orbiting satellite system for NOAA’s day-to-day operations. In 2012, NASA renamed NPP in honor of the late Verner E. Suomi, a meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin who is recognized widely as "the father of satellite meteorology."

OMPS, an advanced suite of three hyperspectral instruments, extends the 30-plus year total-ozone and ozone-profile records. OMPS products, when combined with cloud predictions, also help produce better ultraviolet index forecasts. Designed and built by Ball Aerospace, OMPS is one of five instruments that launched aboard Suomi NPP in 2011. A second OMPS flight unit built by Ball Aerospace will fly on the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1) with its expected launch in 2017.

OMPS consists of a nadir mapper that will map global ozone with about 50-km ground resolution, a nadir profiler that will measure the vertical distribution of ozone in the stratosphere, and a limb profiler that measures ozone in the lower stratosphere and troposphere with high vertical resolution.

Sarah Lipscy is chief instrument scientist for OMPS at Ball Aerospace. OMPS measures ozone in our atmosphere from Suomi NPP. She leads a data-analysis team to characterize the OMPS performance in meeting pre-launch requirements. Lipscy received her PhD in astrophysics from UCLA. She studied the evolution of massive stars, and now works with space sensors that look back at Earth. She co-authored an open-access paper in the SPIE Optical Engineering journal (September 2013) entitled “New paradigm for rapid production of large precision optics: frozen membrane mirror technology.”

See a pre-launch profile of all five NPP instruments in the SPIE Newsroom.

15 July 2014

Inside BIGSS 2014, Part 2: Where knowledge and fun shook hands

Editor’s note: Guest blogger Khushi Vyas, Outreach Coordinator for the SPIE Student Chapter at Imperial College London, was among students at the biophotonics and imaging graduate summer school 15-20 June at the National Biophotonics Imaging Platform Ireland (NBIPI), National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway. In the second of two posts, Khushi describes the experience of attending the school from a personal perspective.

Wisely -- and happily -- BIGSS organizers ensure that the week is not all work and
no play; above attendees get to know each other better over refreshments after hours.
Galway -- the cultural city of Ireland with Bohemian accents -- played host to the fifth annual Biophotonics and Imaging Summer School (BIGSS), organized by the NUI Galway Applied Optics group and chaired by Professor Martin Leahy, who also leads the NBIPI. A mixed crowd, from first-timers to all-timers, comprised this year’s approximately 50 students who not only attended the technical program but made the school an experience of a lifetime.

Practical workshops, poster sessions, and discussion groups on hot topics in the field of photonics and imaging encouraged us students to engage with and explore our potential.

The welcome reception broke the ice among the participants and got everyone talking, divulging enthusiasms and work interests. Young scientists as well as early-career professionals working in multidisciplinary biophotonics areas came to a common platform from which to understand each others’ research work and future interests.

Throughout the rest of the week, eminent guest speakers from all over the world lectured on trending topics such as fluorescence life-time imaging, photoacoustic imaging, optogenetics, optical coherence tomography, and superresolution microscopy. Each speaker not only covered the fundamentals and applications of the topic, but also talked about their contributions in the area and dedicated a good amount of time to discussions which proved quite useful.

Lectures were complemented by practical workshop sessions in which Professor Leahy and his research group did an excellent job in demonstrating the working and applications of these modalities for in vitro and in vivo imaging.

Practical formats such as the poster session which were integrated into the program helped us realize our potential and encouraged discussions and inspirations based on other’s work. Interactive sessions with guest speakers prompted new ideas and future directions for research work. Lectures and sessions highlighted the importance of developing simple, affordable and accessible imaging techniques that could be translated seamlessly into clinical workflow.

However well-integrated a program is, all work and no play ain’t a very good idea.

Galway from the water: participants enjoy a
cruise on the River Corrib.
Activities including a river cruise, barbeque night, and a gala dinner at Dunguaire Castle made us acquainted beyond our professional lives and aspirations. Networking and bonding got more fuel in relaxed environments, and the city’s charm fostered the budding friendships among attendees.

By the end of the program, our knowledge quotient in the field of biophotonics was raised a notch, thanks to experts in the field. Present and future trends in biophotonics surfaced along with our insight into the field.

In early stages of research life, such experiences contribute invaluably towards a future and motivate one to work towards finding solutions for unmet clinical needs. Along with a renewed energy and streamlined direction for further research, we take home memories, new friendships, and hopes of meeting soon, which are at the heart of such experiences.

Inside BIGSS 2014, Part 1: Hot topics, trends, and the future of biophotonics

Editor’s note: Guest blogger Khushi Vyas, Outreach Coordinator for the SPIE Student Chapter at Imperial College London, was among students at the biophotonics and imaging graduate summer school 15-20 June at the National Biophotonics Imaging Platform Ireland (NBIPI), National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway. The first of two posts filed by Khushi describes the topics and trends discussed during the school.

BIGSS participants enjoyed an energizing week in Galway.
The recent fifth annual Biophotonics and Imaging Graduate Summer School (BIGSS) offered a great platform for multidisciplinary learning in biophotonics and fostered communication across several disciplines. Students went home with new ideas, streamlined directions for research, new contacts, and the motivation to contribute towards finding solutions for unmet clinical needs.

Participants included approximately 50 graduate students and early-career professionals and seven distinguished guest speakers working in diverse fields of engineering and imaging physics.

BIGSS chair
Martin Leahy
School organizers invite a different panel each year to share their knowledge, perspectives, and vision on the hot topics and future trends in biophotonics, noted Professor Martin Leahy, the chairperson for BIGSS 2014 and Scientific Director of NBIPI.

Tracks included:
  • Fluorescence microscopy
  • Superresolution microscopy
  • Tissue optics and light-tissue interactions
  • Optogenetics
  • Optical coherence tomography
  • Ultrasound-guided photoacoustic imaging
  • In vivo three-photon microscopy.
Each of the guest speakers covered seminal developments in manifold disciplines of biophotonics and presented a plethora of applications for 3D clinical imaging in vivo.

The trending topics of fluorescence lifetime imaging and multidimensional fluorescence imaging and their many applications towards in vivo and in vitro molecular imaging were discussed by Professor Paul French (Imperial College London).

Professor Rainer Heintzmann (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena) updated the audience with technological milestones achieved to advance from conventional microscopic imaging towards super resolution microscopy and highlighted the challenges that still persist in the field.

Professor Steve Jacques (Oregon Health and Sciences University) talked about the compelling research opportunities to assess and monitor nanoarchitecture of cells by developing novel microscope systems and use the information for therapy and diagnosis.

The new and very fast-growing field of optogenetics was discussed by Professor Samar Mohanty (University of Texas, Arlington) who threw light on his contributions towards optogenetic interventions of neural disorders.

Discussions by Professor Johannes de Boer (Vrie Universiteit Amsterdam) and Professor Stanislav Emelianov (University of Texas, Austin) on recent developments in optical coherence tomography and ultrasound-guided photoacoustic imaging respectively as a clinical imaging tool were also very well received by the attendees.

Professor Chris Xu (Cornell University) concluded the BIGSS guest lecture series by his talk on in vivo three-photon and four-photon microscopy and how this technology could pave the way for breakthroughs in neuroscience and clinical imaging.

When the exciting week drew to an end, participants were polled on potential themes for next year’s BIGSS program, and nanophotonics, photonic therapeutics, and optogenetics shone as popular choices amongst the attendees. Professor Leahy commented on the growing interest in developing ultrasound-guided photoacoustic imaging reconstruction tomography as a clinical tool, saying that he envisions it to be a much-talked-about topic in the near future.

07 July 2014

Your picture on the cover: SPIE’s International Year of Light Photo Contest

Show us your photonics -- that’s what the SPIE Professional magazine staff are asking of photographers around the world.

Light, water, camera, action: Indirect light in a darkened
aquarium highlights anatomical detail in a tank of
swimming jellyfish. (Nikon D40, Nikon AF-S DX
Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G lens, ISO 1600)
Winning photos showing the use of light and light-based technologies in daily life will win cash prizes and cover placement in an issue of SPIE Professional, published by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

The SPIE International Year of Light 2015 Photo Contest is part of the society's observance of the United Nations-declared International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies in 2015 (IYL2015).

IYL2015 is a celebration of the crosscutting discipline of science that has revolutionized medicine, astronomy, and clean energy and opened up international communication via the Internet, and that continues to be central to linking cultural, economic, and political aspects of the global society.

Entries in the SPIE Professional contest must be received by 30 September 2014. Prizes will be awarded in 2015.

Too obvious? Maybe, but this smartphone
is packed with light-based technologies,
not to mention the lasers and other photonics
used to build it. (Nikon D40, Nikon AF-S
DX Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G lens)
Judges knowledgeable in light-based technologies and photography will award a top prize of US $2,500, a second prize of $1,000, and a third prize of $500.

In addition, members of the optics and photonics community and the general public will vote on winner for a "People's Choice" prize of $500.

Photographers of all ages are eligible to submit a maximum of two photos that show light or a light-based technology used in everyday life. Photos are not required to be scientific but they should hold some scientific interest or communicate the International Year of Light theme.

In addition to scientific interest, judges will also evaluate photos on creativity, artistry, and overall appeal. Minimal digital enhancement will be permitted. Because the top photos will be published on the covers of the print editions of SPIE Professional in 2015 and displayed in large format at SPIE Optics + Photonics in 2015, only print-quality digital files will be considered. Files smaller than 5 MB will not be accepted.

Complete information on the contest and rules is at www.spie.org/IYL.

How do you see light or light-based technologies being used in your daily life? Send in your photos.

Looking for inspiration? Take a tour of the gallery of gorgeous images from space presented by astronomer and science educator Ryan Hannahoe.