21 April 2014

Life in the fast lane for photonics!

Backers of an initiative to raise awareness of the field of photonics and the many contributions photonics technologies and applications make to a stronger economy as well as quality of life have new reason to celebrate.

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Last week, the Committee on Science of the the National Science and Technology Council nudged photonics toward the fast track, with the release on Thursday of a report by its Fast-Track Action Committee on Optics and Photonics (FTAC-OP).

In a report titled "Building a Brighter Future with Optics and Photonics,” the FTAC-OP presented a prioritized list of seven recommendations for research opportunities and research-related capabilities. The list aligns with and supports recommendations of the 2013 National Research Council Report Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for our Nation, addressing important needs from new methods for stopping disease, to more jobs that strengthen the economy, to expanded national manufacturing through homegrown R&D, to more effective security and defense systems.

The report notes that support for its recommendations will accelerate basic research progress and applications in optics and photonics.

We think so, too, and join in the photonics community's applause for the FTAC-OP for identifying some powerful strategies to advance the ability of photonics to change lives for the better and contribute to economic competitiveness for the nation.

The FTAC-OP’s prioritized list of recommendations includes:

Research Opportunities
  • (A1) Biophotonics to Advance Understanding of Systems Biology and Disease Progression. Support fundamental research in innovative biophotonics to enable advances in quantitative imaging; systems biology, medicine, and neuroscience; in vivo validation of biomarkers that advance medical diagnostics, prevention, and treatment; and more efficient agricultural production.
  • (A2) From Faint to Single Photonics. Develop optics and photonics technologies that operate at the faintest light levels.
  • (A3) Imaging Through Complex Media. Advance the science of light propagation and imaging through scattering, dispersive, and turbulent media.
  • (A4) Ultra-Low-Power Nano-Optoelectronics. Explore the limits of low energy, attojoule-level photonic devices for application to information processing and communications.

Capability Opportunities
  • (B1) Accessible Fabrication Facilities for Researchers. Determine the need of academic researchers and small business innovators for access to affordable domestic fabrication capabilities to advance the research, development, manufacture, and assembly of complex integrated photonic-electronic devices.
  • (B2) Exotic Photonics. Promote research and development to make compact, user-friendly light sources, detectors, and associated optics at exotic wavelengths accessible to academia, national laboratories, and industry.
  • (B3) Domestic Sources for Critical Photonic Materials. Develop and make available optical and photonic materials critical to our Nation’s research programs, such as infrared materials, nonlinear materials, low-dimensional materials, and engineered materials.

The National Photonics Initiative is an industry-driven campaign to guide photonics research and funding, and resulted from last year’s Essential Technologies report from the NRC. SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, is among the Founding Sponsors in a coalition of scientific societies helping to lead the initiative. The goals of the NPI are to:
  • raise awareness of photonics and the impact of photonics on our everyday lives
  • increase cooperation and coordination among US industry, government and academia to advance photonics-driven fields
  • drive U.S. funding and investment in areas of photonics critical to maintaining U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.

Read the FTAC-OP report -- and keep doing your part to raise the visibility of the powerful enabling technology of photonics! Find out more at www.LightOurFuture.org.

04 April 2014

Brain-mapping milestone -- with photonics, of course!

For 10 years since its founding, the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle has been working toward a greater understanding of the brain, "inspired by the quest to uncover the essence of what makes us human," according to its website. It's a timely quest, given the "big neuroscience" efforts around the world -- including the Human Brain Project in Europe and the BRAIN Initiative in the United States.

SPIE Newsroom video interview with Michael Hawrylycz
People are working on many fronts to learn about the brain and treat its injuries and disorders. Photonics is a key tool in this effort. A recent SPIE Newsroom visit to the institute resulted in this video interview with Michael Hawrylycz, an investigator and director of the Modeling, Analysis, and Theory Group.

If you haven't seen the video, it's worth a look in light of the publication, on the one-year anniversary of President Obama's announcement of the BRAIN Initiative, of two papers in Nature reporting on significant milestones -- brain maps. Hawrylycz describes the brain map and the photonic tools used to develop it.

The papers highlight the Allen Institute's groundbreaking work to produce and share the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain prenatal data, and the Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas.

Understanding what makes humans unique involves deciphering a complex puzzle -- one that begins during the earliest phases of development. The richness of the BrainSpan Atlas gives scientists a new set of tools to assess how the human brain develops compared to other species. It's a detailed map of where different genes are turned on and off during mid-pregnancy at unprecedented anatomical resolution. The BrainSpan Atlas enables researchers around the world to conduct research and ask questions about the early human brain that many would not be able to do otherwise.

The mouse brain’s 75 million neurons, arranged in a roughly similar structure to the human brain, provide a powerful model system by which to understand how nerve cells of the human brain connect, process and encode information. Scientists at the Allen Institute set out to create a wiring diagram of the brain -- also known as a “connectome” -- to illustrate short and long-range connections using genetically-engineered viruses that could trace and illuminate individual neurons.

In order to get a truly comprehensive view, scientists collected imaging data at resolutions smaller than a micrometer from more than 1,700 mouse brains, each of which was divided into 140 serial sections. Publication of this resource opens a world of possibilities for researchers to use this connective roadmap of the brain to make exciting new discoveries, since the data and tools are all publicly available through the Allen Brain Atlas portal.

Congratulations to everyone who played a role in this landmark achievement. We can't wait to see what the next decade brings in brain research.

25 March 2014

Rapid response to natural disaster: ESA Sentinel-1 will launch new capability

Next week, on 3 April, a new era will begin in remote-sensing-aided disaster response. The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that the Sentinel-1A radar satellite will be launched from the European spaceport in French Guiana.

Sentinel-1, the first in the family of
Copernicus satellites, will be used to
care for many aspects of our environment,
from detecting and tracking oil spills and
mapping sea ice to monitoring movement
in land surfaces and mapping changes in
the way land is used. It will also play a
crucial role in providing timely information
to help respond to natural disasters and
assist in emergency response. Photo:
ESA/ATG media lab
Sentinel-1 is designed for responding rapidly to aid emergencies and disasters such as flooding and earthquakes. The first satellite carries an advanced radar sensor to image Earth’s surface through cloud and rain and regardless of time of day.

Each Sentinel mission is based on a constellation of two satellites to provide robust datasets for Copernicus Services, the new name for the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program, previously known as GMES.

The initiative is headed by the European Commission in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA). It will provide accurate, timely and easily accessible information to improve the management of the environment, understand and mitigate the effects of climate change and ensure civil security. The first of the initial two-satellite mission, Sentinel-1A will be joined in orbit next year by Sentinel-1B.

Sentinel-1 carries a 12 m-long advanced synthetic aperture radar (SAR), working in C-band. Radar data can be used for monitoring land deformation. The “radar interferometry'” remote-sensing technique combines two or more radar images over the same area to detect changes occurring between acquisitions. Interferometry allows for the monitoring of even slight ground movement – down to a few mm – across wide areas.

As well as being a valuable resource for urban planners, this type of information is essential for monitoring shifts from earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic uplift.

Sentinel-1A being prepared for launch at
Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French
Guiana. Photo: ESA-B v/d Elst
ESA is developing five families of Sentinel missions specifically for Copernicus. The Sentinels will provide a unique set of observations, starting with the all-weather, day and night radar images from Sentinel-1 to be used for land and ocean services.

Sentinel-2 will deliver high-resolution optical images for land services and Sentinel-3 will provide data for services relevant to the ocean and land.

Sentinel-4 and Sentinel-5 will provide data for atmospheric composition monitoring from geostationary and polar orbits, respectively.

SPIE Proceedings have reported extensively on instrumentation developed for the Sentinel missions, including 14 new papers published in November 2013 from conferences on Earth Observing Systems; Remote Sensing for Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Hydrology; Sensors, Systems, and Next-Generation Satellites; and SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) Image Analysis, Modeling, and Techniques.

ESA's Portal will cover the launch live, providing the videostream and updates of the launch at: www.esa.int/esalive and www.livestream.com/eurospaceagency.

20 March 2014

Colonoscopy: photonics at work, saving lives

What photonics enables the clinician to see: Fig. 2 H&E
histology, OCT B-scan images, and three-dimensional
(3-D)OCT volume render for (a–c) rectal and (d–f)
duodenal biopsies. Bar=0.2  mm. From “Spatially resolved
optical and ultrastructural properties of colorectal and
pancreatic field carcinogenesis observed by inverse
spectroscopic optical coherence tomography,” Journal
of Biomedical Optics
19(3), 036013 (Mar 18, 2014).
Having a colonoscopy? If you're 50 or older, is there really a question?

No question at all -- if you have the means to go in for a colonoscopy, do so. The optics-and-photonics-enabled technology could save your life.

So say the results of recent research into the effectiveness of the endoscopic inspection of the colon as a means of detecting and removing cancerous or potentially dangerous growths, reports optics.org on an analysis of clinic data from the American Cancer Society (ACS).

In the USA, say ACS authors in the journal CA, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer and the third leading cause of death from cancer.

As with all cancers, early detection is key.

The colonoscopy -- employing an external light source, fiber optics to carry light and data, a lens system, and imaging software and hardware -- offers the advantage of both detecting and potentially preventing cancer, via the removal of polyps.

The ACS paper is one of several recent reports illustrating the effectiveness of the procedure -- and the technology is improving all the time.

An article in The Lancet Oncology on results of trials by EndoChoice in Israel, the Netherlands, and the USA, reports that a new full-spectrum endoscopy was far more effective at detecting adenomas – non-cancerous growths that may become malignant or cancers.

At SPIE meetings earlier this year, conferences included reports on innovative next-generation imaging and modeling techniques and technology, such as the use of 3D and optical coherence tomography (OCT) methods to enhance accuracy, speed, and effectiveness of colonoscopy.

A paper from SPIE Medical Imaging by authors from the Massaschusetts Institute of Technology published earlier this week in the SPIE Digital Library describes a new software platform for high-performance 3D medical imaging processing. The paper was only one of many reporting on new techniques and technologies to improve cancer screening.

The BiOS symposium at Photonics West includes organizers and presenters representing the pioneers and the avant-garde in the field, with tracks on spectroscopy, microscopy, imaging, and nano/biophotonics all contributing to new and improved ways to detect and treat cancer and save more lives.

And an open access article published this week in the Journal of Biomedical Optics details a study on using OCT to improve analysis of changes in cells such as those in the digestive tract and colon that are susceptible to cancer. The work was done by researchers from Northwestern University, NorthShore University Health Systems, and Boston Medical Center.

The ACS report shows that more people in the USA are being screened and that death rates from colorectal cancer have declined in recent years. In the compelling words of the ACS’s Richard Wender, “These continuing drops in incidence and mortality show the lifesaving potential of colon cancer screening" -- enabled by optics and photonics.

20 February 2014

As inspiring as the Olympics: photonics!

Records are broken, new tricks are introduced, new stars step onto the world stage -- there is a lot of inspiration generated when the Olympic Games are on. Feats of athleticism are being demonstrated that were not imagined to be possible, and possibly not even imagined, as recently as 10 years ago.

It’s the same with photonics -- you can decide whether it is as flashy or as exciting as the Olympic Games. But feats are being demonstrated that were not possible until now, by people we may or may not have heard of before. And the results are definitely life-changing, for more than just those who perform them.

For example, in separate talks at SPIE Photonics West last month, Michal Lipson of Cornell University and Ashok Krishnamoorthy of Oracle described new tricks with light that could help solve one of the most profound problems facing our increasingly digitally plugged-in world: data storage capacity, or more precisely, the projected lack of it sometime in the next 5 or 10 years.

The data that won’t be savable unless something major changes isn’t just old email messages. It’s your medical records, bank account, family photos; your research records, copyrights, company payroll; essentially anything computer-generated that you would ever like to see again.

Photonics engineers across the globe are at work on that problem, and on many others.

More examples? Rox Anderson of Harvard and Jim Fujimoto of MIT, two of the established stars among the sparkling crowd at Photonics West, opened a session where several other stars told about their latest work in biomedical optics -- engineering with light, to heal and cure. A few of the speakers were:

  • Bruce Tromberg (Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic University of California Irvine) presenting on optical methods of assessing the effectiveness of cancer therapy to provide feedback in time to improve the treatment.

  • Eric Seibel (University of Washington) talking about using a scanning fiber endoscope to provide high-contrast imaging in small ducts and the cardiovascular system, to improve biopsy procedures, diagnostics, and stent deployment.

  • Gary Shambat (Adamant Technologies) describing using nanometer-sized probes that insert a nanobeam into a single cell without damaging the cell, and functionalizing the beam to essentially take the lab to the biological system instead of extracting the biological system for study in a lab.

That’s photonics engineering, one aspect of what is being celebrated in the U.S. this week as DiscoverE and a major aspect of what will be celebrated around the world in 2015 as the International Year of Light.

True, there are very few clothing endorsement contracts for photonics engineers. But there are records broken, impressive new tricks introduced, and new stars stepping onto the stage to help improve and even save lives.

14 January 2014

Sunshine in a suitcase: light for health and more

Laura Stachel, at right, demonstrates the WE CARE Solar
Suitcase for a healthcare colleague.
A “Solar Suitcase” developed by an obstetrician in California is providing a source of light for healthcare clinics that face chronic power shortages in developing countries, notes an article in the latest issue of SPIE Professional magazine.

In 2008, California-based obstetrician Laura Stachel traveled to Nigeria for doctoral studies. At the time, Nigeria had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. As she was observing an emergency Caesarean section at a state hospital, the lights suddenly went out. Stachel was surprised by the nonchalant attitude of the staff for whom this was a common occurrence. The procedure was completed by the light of Stachel’s flashlight.

Stachel learned that power outages are common in African hospitals, and many clinics are without any electricity altogether. Midwives in Nigeria have long resorted to using kerosene lanterns, candles, or even cell phones while delivering babies. Stachel knew these methods were not efficient during delivery complications where direct light was needed.

On returning home, Stachel asked her husband, Hal Aronson, a solar-energy educator, to design an off-grid solar electric system. The resulting Women’s Emergency Communication and Reliable Electricity (WE CARE) Solar Suitcase, was meant to serve as a model for a larger solar power system but became so useful, especially in rural areas, that requests for the small units began pouring in.

Stachel and Aronson founded the non-profit WE CARE Solar, began applying for grants to help fund production, and to date have delivered more than 400 units.

The case encloses a complete solar electric system, including two solar panels, a sealed lead-acid battery, a charge controller, and two acrylic-encased LED lights. It contains outlets to charge cellphones and a fetal heart-rate monitor. Easy to operate, it is designed to withstand heat, rain, and rough treatment.

Community centers, orphanages, and refugee camps have also requested the Solar Suitcase. Units were used by medical teams after the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2013 typhoon that ravaged the Philippines.

Stachel has been honored as one of the CNN Heroes of 2013. The program recognizes people working to make a difference through various projects such as cleaning up polluted environments, providing housing for the poor, and bringing produce to “food deserts.”

Read the full story at http://spie.org/x105095.xml -- and learn more about another reason to celebrate the International Year of Light in 2015!


21 November 2013

Pinhole cameras, build-your-own telescope kits teach students the fundamentals of optics

Nicole da Silva and Jailton Nunes make a self-portrait with a pinhole camera during
the Mão na Lata workshop. Photo by Fagner França, courtesy of Tatiana Altberg.

Science projects that utilize the field of optics – from pinhole cameras to build-your-own telescopes – are an accessible way for educators worldwide to engage students in science by teaching them basic concepts about light.

The New York Times Lens Blog recently highlighted one such project in Rio De Janeiro, called Mão na Lata (Hand in the Can), where photographer Tatiana Altberg has held pinhole photography workshops with local NGO Redes de Desenvolvimento da Maré for the past 10 years to teach children the fundamentals of optics.

Mão na Lata melds classes on photography with literature, self-exploration and local narratives for young people in Maré, a Rio De Janiero favela. 

Ruan Torquato, left, uses a pinhole camera to take a photo in Lapa. Yasmin Lopes, 
right, takes a photo in Maré. Photos by Fagner França, courtesy of Tatiana Altberg.

Altberg originally planned to use pinhole cameras to teach photography fundamentals before moving on to traditional cameras. But she told the New York Times she realized the simplicity, low cost and slow process of using a pinhole camera made it an ideal teaching instrument.

The students use recycled cans to build the cameras. They are asked to create self-portraits, and because pinhole cameras rely on long exposure to capture an image, they are forced to be introspective, considering both their mood and the environment before putting in the effort to take a photograph. 

"The challenge of working with pinhole photography is to make the self-portrait a process of reflection about one’s self — a product of an intention," Altberg told the New York Times. "The idea is not to take photos in an automatic way, with poses and gestures that are seen in the pictures teenagers take with their cellphones and digital cameras. It’s necessary to pay attention to the surroundings and think before making an image. Pinhole is a slow process of creation that demands a lot of thought."

Build-your-own telescope kits

Telescope kits provided by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, are also helping students in many parts of the world gain a better understanding of optics.

Beginning in 2009, in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the telescope, the nonprofit began distributing kits to SPIE student chapters and SPIE members around the world who were engaged in community outreach. 

The students and members receive a training booklet filled with activities as well as the telescope kits so they can host events at local schools. The hands-on activity helps young students understand the basic concepts of refraction and geometric optics.

More than 1,500 telescope kits have been given away to date. 

Students participate in a telescope workshop in 2013 at University of Pacific in
Stockton, California, as part of Expanding Your Horizons, a national program that
provides STEM role models and hands-on activities for middle and high school girls.
Photo courtesy Stacie Manuel, EYH volunteer

The build-your-own telescope kits help demonstrate basic optics principles through hands-on experience in constructing a 16X refracting telescope. While the telescope components are simple two cardboard tubes, some foam, plastic end caps, and two small plano-convex plastic lenses the telescopes they create are surprisingly effective.

"Building a telescope is an excellent and very accessible way to teach the principles of optics, and to help draw awareness to optics and photonics technologies," says Barbara Darnell, Chair of the SPIE Education Committee. SPIE is committed "to introducing students to career possibilities in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics and to inspiring and informing the next generation of problem-solvers, inventors, and creators of better ways of living."


 The SPIE Student Chapter at University of Texas-Austin hosted a "Fun with Optics" event
in 2009 using the telescope kits to explore properties of light with local students.