30 August 2012

New information and new organization: Opportunity for change in North America

A new report on the U.S. photonics
industry updates a 1998 study.
Governments in Asia, Europe, North America, and elsewhere are finding new ways to prioritize their efforts to support optics technologies and industries and to advance their own national competitiveness and economic success

A recent article in the SPIE Professional magazine surveyed the latest developments around the world. This post on policy in North America is the final part in a series that borrows from the magazine's report and has been edited to reflect the release on 13 August of the U.S. National Academies’ “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation.” The report was commissioned as an update to the National Academies’ "Harnessing Light" report of 1998, credited with inspiring and informing policy strategies around the world following its release.

Photonics in Canada

In Canada earlier this year, the merger of the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations (CIPI) and the Canadian Photonics Consortium (CPC) led to the establishment of the Canadian Photonic Industry Consortium (CPIC), an industry-led photonics knowledge exchange. Its mission is to help end-users of photonics technologies, industry, universities, and institutions network to accelerate economic growth and innovation.

While the new industry association will not directly fund research, CPIC has an agreement with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to conduct the initial vetting of government funding proposals to accelerate the NSERC review and approval process in hopes of improving the technology-transfer rate in Canada.

“We will ensure that the projects fit within NSERC’s intellectual property rules and look at how the proposals can be strengthened,” said Robert Corriveau, executive director of CPIC. “This will speed up the approval process and increase their chances of success.”

There are an estimated 450 photonics companies in Canada employing approximately 20,300 people.

Canada’s proposed budget for 2012 increases funding for R&D by small- and medium-sized companies and commits $37 million a year to the granting councils to enhance their support for industry-academic research partnerships.

Harnessing light, essential technologies

The United States hasn’t seen the same level of organized and sustained support for optics and photonics as other countries, though there is hope that might change with the release (13 August) of the new National Academies study.

The new study is titled “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation,”  and updates the 1998 National Research Council study, “Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century.” The new report identifies several “grand challenges” and recommends actions for the development and maintenance of global leadership in the photonics industry.

Significant among those is the recommendation for a high-level National Photonics Initiative (NPI). The committee co-chairs, Alan Willner and Paul McManamon, having been outlining just how that would look in a series of post-release briefings starting with the debut briefing on 15 August before an overflow audience in the exhibition hall during SPIE Optics and Photonics at the San Diego Convention Center.

Willner described the NPI as a high-level framework engaging industry, government, and academia in significant roles, driven by “vision, strategy and money.” He said that long-term commitment to financial backing is key, and that government should “provide the glue,” with the entire community, from research to development, engaged and committed for the long-term. (See the video presentation for more.)

Forward progress in the Century of the Photon!

07 August 2012

‘It’s a lot of fun to do this!’: Photonics, Mars, and the ‘Mohawk man’

Curiosity is spotted on parachute by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on its descent to the surface. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s hard not to have noticed the glee among those interested in space exploration and in fact science in general this week, following the successful deployment on the ground of the Curiosity rover by NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). If you missed it, check out the video and coverage on MSNBC.

There are plenty of photonic instruments on the Curiosity, from the fancy cameras that are sending back pictures, to the laser rock-blaster that is making smoke for analysis by the (photonic) spectrometer.

Optics and photonics are also making possible incredible front-page images, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, of the lander parachuting to the surface.

The team who has worked for nearly nine years to make the landing and now the mission happen include NASA staff as well as contractors.

One of the latter, Ken Edgett, was a speaker at a Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) briefing Tuesday morning. He is senior research scientist for Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, designers of three of the cameras on Curiosity, and principal investigator for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) investigation on the MSL.

Like many involved with the mission, Edgett’s excitement was obvious. “It works, it’s awesome, and we can’t wait to open it and see what else we can see,” he said at the briefing.

Specifically, what had worked was that the MAHLI camera had already returned the first color image from Curiosity despite not even being fully deployed on its two-meter robotic arm yet. The photo, showing the north rim of Gale Crater, was taken with the dust cover (and plenty of dust) still in place. MAHLI can focus from 2.1 cm to infinity, and has a transparent dust cover that opens and closes as necessary.

That is exciting. It’s also exciting to ponder just how many ways technology from the mission, as with all space missions, will be spun off for innovations that solve the world’s health, energy, communication, security and other challenges, and stimulate industry in the process.

Individuals involved are happy to use the Curiosity landing as an opportunity to share the important contributions of optics and photonics -- even if they haven’t planned to be in the spotlight.

For NASA’s Bobak Ferdowsi -- dubbed “the Mohawk man” -- the opportunity to promote science has come via a hairstyle.

His distinctive Mohawk haircut was selected for the event by a vote of his NASA colleagues, and was captured in news clips that generated major waves on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Asked about the extensive attention his hairstyle was attracting, Ferdowsi told a WhatsTrending interviewer, "It's a lot of fun to do this ... if my Mohawk helps encourage more kids to get involved in science, that’s great ."

Whatever it takes, the Curiosity landing on Mars is definitely an event worth using as a time to celebrate the contributions of science to making Earth a better place to live.

05 August 2012

Investing in R&D: Europe's direction for photonics

Horizon 2020 aims for R&D invesment in the EU.
Governments in Asia, Europe, North America, and elsewhere are finding new ways to prioritize their efforts to support optics technologies and industries and to advance their own national competitiveness and economic success.

A recent article in the SPIE Professional magazine surveyed the latest developments around the world. This post on European policy is part of a series that borrows from the magazine's report.

A previous post focused on what is happening in Asia; next up is North America, where an update to the "Harnessing Light" report of 1998 is expected to be released by mid-August.

The European Commission (EC) is negotiating the budget details of its landmark Horizon 2020 program, unveiled last November, which aims to invest €80 billion for research and innovation between 2014 and 2020.

Photonics was named one of Europe’s five key enabling technologies (along with advanced materials, biotechnology, micro and nano-electronics, and nanotechnology) in 2009, and one of the primary goals of Horizon 2020 is to support, master, and deploy these technologies. To that end, the program will spend approximately €13.8 billion to expand its industrial capabilities and promote international investment and competitiveness.

Other components of Horizon 2020 include efforts to simplify funding procedures for governmental grants, create new public-private partnerships, and expand of high-risk financing for small- and medium-size companies. (See "Horizon 2020" in the April 2012 issue of SPIE Professional.)

“Horizon 2020 represents a real break from the past,” says Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation, and Science. “We went back to the drawing board to radically rethink how we invest in research and innovation. The program focuses on supporting the best research and innovation ideas that provide major business opportunities and change people’s lives for the better."

Thierry Van der Pyl, director of Components and Systems within the Information Society and Media Directorate of the EC, framed the many promising opportunities for photonics presented by Horizon 2020 at SPIE Photonics Europe earlier this year.

Partnerships and centers of excellence

Horizon 2020 developments are taking place at the same time EU member countries are undertaking their own efforts to support optics and photonics. Spain, Germany, and England have launched funding programs to establish and support scientific research centers.
  • Photonics21, the European technology platform, is working to ensure photonics receives appropriate attention. The organization last year pledged €5.6 billion in private support for a proposed Photonics Public-Private Partnership with the EC.
  • The German government is supporting photonics research and development with a €100 million-per-year budget for photonics R&D. That support, announced in June 2011, is set to be matched by commercial partners. Germany aims to create 20,000 new jobs by 2015, with funding expected to continue through 2020.
  • Spain has pledged to distribute €1 million per year for four years to eight Spanish research centers, three of which have a focus on photonics. The program is intended to expand to another 32 centers in the next four years.
  • Similarly, the UK has tasked its Technology Strategy Board (TSB) with the creation of technology and innovation centers called “Catapult Centers” to close the gap between technology concepts and commercialization. A taskforce within the TSB named electronics, photonics, and electrical systems as one of its focus areas, recognizing that these systems underpin economic activity in healthcare, energy, transport, and environmental sustainability. Although photonics was not chosen for a dedicated CatapultCenter, the TSB has a £50 million pot of funding for photonics, sensor systems, smart grids, and related technologies over the next several years. In addition, photonics technologies will be featured to some degree in several of the areas that will become Catapult Centers, such as high-volume manufacturing, satellite applications, transport systems, and the connected digital economy. The board also created a three-year strategic plan, similar to the EC’s blueprint for Horizon 2020, to reduce barriers to funding, increase governmental and private sector partnerships, and support high-risk ventures.

Taking the pulse

Looking at the photonics sector at mid-year, the industry news website observed recently that operational cutbacks seen in some sectors reflect the reversal of the optimistic mood at the beginning of 2012. At the same time, investment in new production technologies relating to automobile and consumer electronics manufacturing appears robust, and is proving to be a major boost for some laser companies and for companies positioned to meet an apparently insatiable demand for flat-panel displays and a strong market for LEDs.