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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.


17 October 2013

Sunny California hosts Solar Decathlon

This past weekend marked the conclusion of the 2013 Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, held in Irvine, California. It was the sixth time the DOE-sponsored event has been held in the United States, but the first time outside of Washington, DC. Besides the obvious benefits of exposure to a new audience, the contest made the best of the more dependable California sunshine, although there was some rain one day, and the first weekend was a challenge with hot temperatures and 50 mph Santa Ana winds.

In any case each team was able to tally a full 100 points for the Energy Conversion part of the competition – meaning every house produced more energy than it consumed – for the first time ever.

SPIE Newsroom and SPIE.TV spent some time in Irvine and focused on the technical aspects of some of the houses. We had an expert commentator to help – Adam Plesniak of Amonix, the concentrating PV company located in nearby Seal Beach. Adam’s view, and that of many others we encountered, is that the focus is no longer about proving solar’s value but about how to efficiently integrate it into design, construction and the power grid.




Several teams incorporated innovative technologies into their houses, such as predictive shading systems, circulating water for heating and cooling, and bifacial solar collection units, gathering energy from direct sunlight on top and reflected light underneath.

SPIE student member Kimberly Hammer gave us a description (see video) of some of the technologies that went into the University of Nevada Las Vegas house, DesertSOL . Kimberley just received her master’s in mechanical engineering from UNLV, and started this fall at the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences, pursuing her PhD and studying photovoltaics. UNLV tied for third in the Engineering competition and finished second overall in the Solar Decathlon.

It’s fun and inspiring to visit these houses and feel the enthusiasm of the students who made them a reality. Over and over we heard about the challenges of people from different disciplines coming together for a project like this. In every case, it was worth the effort to overcome differences in terminology, priorities, and methods in order to produce something great. SPIE congratulates all the participants in the Solar Decathlon, and extends our appreciation to the organizers and sponsors. 

Team Austria wins 2013 Solar Decathlon (SPIE Newsroom)

Next up: the Solar Decathlon Europe, opening 27 June 2014.

10 October 2013

Suddenly, it’s all clear: instant prescription eyewear

To a child with impaired vision, it might seem like magic. You put on the glasses and turn a dial to adjust the lenses to correct the particular refractive error in your own eyes. Voilà! Instant prescription! Instant clear vision!

But it’s not magic. It’s photonics.

Specifically, these are “instant prescription eyewear” using adaptive optics, techniques that correct optical signals within a particular system.

Applications in astronomy provide a good illustration. Light coming in from space to telescopes on Earth is distorted by particles and gases in the atmosphere. Adaptive optics techniques make corrections in the final viewed image, based on analysis of what has caused the distortion, and render a clear image of what’s out there.

A student at Bwindi Watoto School
in Uganda wears Child ViSion's instant
prescription eyewear. Photo courtesy
Child ViSion.
Joshua Silver, CEO of the Centre for Vision in the Developing World, and Dow Corning are working to bring adaptive-optics-based eyewear to millions of people in the developing world who have no access to vision correction services, through an initiative called Child ViSion.

Child ViSion estimates that 60% of young people in the developing world do not have the glasses that they need to be successful in school. The program helps tackle poor vision by distributing self-adjustable glasses, based on a fluid-filled lens technology, through school-based programs in Africa.

Members of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, and participants at the society’s recent Optics + Photonics meeting in San Diego are helping, too -- to the tune of a $10,000 donation from the society.

Child ViSion was one of three philanthropic projects that were up for a vote at the event and on the SPIE website, and was awarded the top donation as a result of winning the most votes.

ALOP facilitators in Nepal, a recent workshop site.
The other two projects up for vote were also winners, with each receiving a donation of $2,500 from SPIE. Each meets a need in the area of STEM education, in very creative ways.

Teaching the teachers

Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP) workshops introduce basic optics and photonics concepts to teachers in developing countries, by pairing theoretical modules with hands-on applications and using low-cost locally available materials. Hundreds of teachers have been provided with training manuals and materials to take back to their classrooms. This SPIE donation will support teachers to attend an ALOP training in Colombia.

The trainers are dedicated volunteers, optics and photonics professors from far-flung universities who travel the world with the support of UNESCO, SPIE, ICTP (International Centre for Theoretical Physics) and other organizations, and continually demonstrate their passion for sharing the possibilities for improving quality of life by using scientific knowledge.

Fun with lasers

Hundreds of cheering students have it right: the Laser
Roadshow is a great way to learn about optics.
Ever heard several hundred middle-schoolers cheering and singing in response to a science lesson? In the case of the Laser Roadshow, it’s a chilling experience -- in a really wonderful way.

Prismatic Magic's Laser Roadshow brings engaging laser programs to assemblies at schools with underserved populations across the United States, combining science and laser education with music and a laser animation show. The program’s mission is to enhance general awareness of how advances in optics and photonics improve quality of life and to motivate students to explore careers in optics and photonics.

Combined with educational and travel scholarships and numerous other programs, SPIE provides more than $3.2 million in support of optics and photonics education and outreach programs each year.

With the vote, the society aimed to increase awareness of just how that money is allotted, and also to give the community a voice in where the donations go.

Inspiring stories of photonics helping to make a better world!

07 October 2013

Eye-tracking technology


Advancements in microtechnology, photonic devices, image sensors and illuminators are helping people with speech impairments and other disabilities communicate and experience a greatly enhanced quality of life without the need for bulky head gear or a bite bar.

A recent article in SPIE Professional magazine outlines the innovations that Swedish-based Tobii Technology has made with eye-tracking technologies for augmentative communication systems for people with ALS, (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), for example, as well as for applications in auto safety, medical imaging, human psychology research and more.

“Assistive technologies and eye tracking make a natural pair to allow people with disabilities to regain independence and maintain communication,” said Henrik Eskilsson, CEO and co-founder of Tobii Technology.

Different from eye-recognition technologies in which a device responds to whether a user’s eyes are looking at it or are open or closed, Tobii’s eye-tracking technology enables the user’s gaze point to become a selecting device on computers, tablets, and other devices, all with a subject sitting and moving in a natural manner in front of a computer.

Tobii eye trackers are based on the principle of corneal-reflection tracking. First, one or several near-infrared illuminators on an eye-tracking device create reflection patterns on the cornea of the eyes.

Image sensors then register the image of the user’s eyes in real time.

Image processing is used to find the eyes, detect the exact position of the pupil and/or iris, and identify the correct reflections from the illuminators and their exact positions.

Mathematical models of the eye are then used to calculate the eyes’ position in 3D and the point of gaze.

This approach frees the subjects being tracked from having to wear subject-stabilizing equipment.

“By using our natural gaze point as part of our user controls, we can experience a more efficient method of obtaining and sharing information and eliminate an interaction barrier between ourselves and our most valued gadgets,” Eskilsson wrote.

Eskilsson says eye-tracking technology is coming soon to the mass consumer market for home electronics systems, video games, accident prevention systems in cars, and even to help athletes optimize their performance.

02 October 2013

Biomarkers + optics equal a powerful new healthcare capability

Biomarkers are getting a lot of attention lately as a means of monitoring health and diagnosing disease, and it’s no surprise that photonics-based sensing techniques are bringing them into the spotlight. A project named BILOBA is a collaboration funded by the European Commission through its Seventh Framework Programme. The acronym is an abbreviation of “Bloch electromagnetic surface wave bio-sensors for early cancer diagnosis”(!)

BILOBA plans to develop and pre-clinically validate a multifunctional point-of-care platform that is capable of performing real-time cancer biomarker detection in a tandem configuration. Such configuration will utilize label-free detection based on the resonance shift, and the spectral analysis of enhanced fluorescence emitted by biomolecules immobilized on the surface. Utilizing both labeled and label-free analysis on the same sensor system can increase the sensitivity and reliability of optically read out surface-bound assays.

The well-established optical standard method for non-labeled detection is the surface plasmon resonance method. Its sensitivity suffers from the strong absorption of surface-bound waves. A similar concept, already at the proof-of-principle stage, will be advantageously implemented by applying the unique properties of Bloch Surface Waves (BSW) sustained on a 1D Photonic Crystal. Therein, a surface wave without absorption is excited, giving rise to an enormous narrowing of resonances and an associated increase in sensitivity. Furthermore, fluorescence enhancement due to near-field effects will be exploited. By utilizing the dispersion of the BSW both detection schemes will be combined.

The major goal of the project is to explore, design, and set-up BSW systems optimized for analytical sensing, associated with the development of a corresponding analytical instrument. For this purpose, the immobilization protocols and biochemical assays have to be established to ensure an optimized binding site density at the surface and to enable the detection of the target biomarkers. Furthermore, a fluidic system will be developed, which will supply and handle the aqueous analyte solutions while ensuring a high signal-to-noise ratio and robust results even in the case of ultralow concentrations. The platform will be validated by pre-clinical tests on the detection of Angiopoietin-1 and -2, and Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor.

The BILOBA project consists of nine participants from different European countries and with different objectives of participating. The three-year project just completed its first year. Its budget is €4.73 million, including €3.6 million from the European Commission.

On a related note, SPIE Newsroom has just published a timely video about the sensing of biomarkers, with Francesco Baldini of Italy’s Institute of Applied Physics. Baldini chairs a conference on Optical Sensing for SPIE and his lab has been working on numerous types and applications of biosensors for years.

18 September 2013

What's in a name: light and photonics

Light: you need it, you use it. But do most people know how much we use it -- and why should they?

Helping to tell that story, the 2 posters at right anticipating an International Year of Light (IYL) celebration in 2015 were among more than 30 on display in the Photonics for a Better World pavilion during the exhibition last month at SPIE Optics + Photonics in San Diego. The posters were designed by supporters of a proposal before the United Nations to establish the IYL to raise awareness about the initiative.

Yes, that’s right: a year especially set aside for the contemplation and celebration of light – and along the way, plenty of opportunity to talk about photonics.

Hardly a household word now, "photonics" refers to science and technology involving the manipulation of photons -- light. One of the goals of an International Year of Light is, essentially, to make “photonics” a household word, in the same way that “electricity” and “chemistry” are.

This is important, not just to the photonics industry, for a simple reason. Not having a word to name or describe something goes hand-in-hand with not understanding it, and perhaps not even noticing it.

But applications of photonics technologies are everywhere these days. The modern world is stocked with objects and experiences supplied by cross-disciplinary R&D enabled by light.

Ignoring photonics would be a big drawback for inventors trying to create new products (think of the smartphone) or improve services (social media feeds run by mass transit systems to help travelers avoid delays). It would hamper researchers looking for a better way to treat disease (blood testing without pricking the skin), or keep our food supplies safe (sensors to detect e coli).

The list goes on and on. Take a look around wherever you’re reading this, and add your own.

Policy makers need to understand the word “photonics” as well, for the sake of the economies they help steward. Depending on where and how the counting is done, somewhere between 40 and 80 percent of economic growth over the last 50 years is the result of technology innovation.

Today’s major innovators and market leaders are focusing on photonics -- the most driven and organized are even calling it by name. They’re using it in systems to defend their regions from military and cyber attacks, to ensure clean water supplies for their people, to diagnose disease in the remotest regions as well as hospitals and clinics, to light communities in more efficient ways and conserve energy supplies … once again, the list goes on and on.

The IYL initiative would celebrate and educate about light in science, technology, nature and culture. Groups supporting the IYL have already received an endorsement from UNESCO and are optimistic that the proposal will be put before the full U.N. General Assembly by the end of the year.


And learn more about those striking posters and the book in which they're featured at http://magic-of-light.org/iyl2015/index.htm.

Here's to an ...

02 August 2013

Asteroids go home!

Here’s a way photonics could create a better world: by preventing our earth from being pulverized by an asteroid.

The terrifying arrival of a meteorite in Chelyabinsk, Russia earlier this year raised awareness (again) of the potential for a catastrophic, much bigger object to threaten earth. This one was “only” estimated at 17-20 meters in size, weighing about 10,000 tons. Nearly 1500 people sought medical attention for injuries – flying glass was the main culprit. Also, 7000 buildings were damaged. The entry into the atmosphere created a shock wave that circled the earth twice.

So it’s good news that people are applying their creativity to the problem of even bigger objects that might threaten earth – the ones we can see coming. How to destroy them before they destroy us, or simply redirect them into a new path away from our planet? It seems like a job for lasers, doesn’t it?

A NASA press release described a “mission formulation review” this week to examine concepts for each phase of the asteroid mission. In addition NASA has received more than 400 responses to a request for information in which industry, universities and the public offered ideas for NASA’s asteroid initiative. You can bet there are plenty of lasers involved. Now we can look forward to crossing one natural catastrophe off our threat list, once our photonics-enabled protection system is in place.

28 July 2013

August recess brings Congress home for US photonics industry

One of the best chances of the year for the US photonics industry to capture the ear of Congress is scheduled to begin Friday: the August recess.

Do you wish that your Congressional representative or senator understood why your photonics business or research is important to the economy?

Do you wish that your representative knew how photonics helps -- to give just a few examples -- ensure community safety, cure diseases such as cancer, enable mobile phone communications and the internet, power 3D printing of airplane parts -- and create new industry and jobs?

To help tell the photonics story, researchers
including Naomi Halas of Rice University
(above) tell in an SPIE.tv video how they use
optics and photonics to kill cancer, treat brain
disorders, make computers run faster, convert
mobile phones into sophisticated wireless
diagnostic devices, identify concealed explosives,
and more. (Video:1:38)
And do you wish that Congress realized that the nations that are most successful at being leaders in these technologies are the nations whose leaders have established photonics-related goals to be in first place?

If so, take advantage of Congress’ customary August recess to visit Members’ local offices and have your say.

Your job is made easier by several tools including some prepared by industry experts participating in the National Photonics Initiative (NPI) sponsored by five engineering and scientific societies including SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. The NPI was among recommendations specified in last year’s National Academies’ report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for our Nation.”
Among the tools are:


Reach out. Speak up. Give your representative and senators a face and a name to connect with -- yours! -- when he or she is back in session and voting on polices that will ( or might not…) serve to advance photonics. Share your story and your aspirations for using photonics to improve your world.

11 July 2013

Lasers may not be habit-forming

The Wall Street Journal reported recently on research at MIT aimed at curing people’s bad habits. But this involved sessions with a physicist rather than a psychologist.

After identifying cells important to habit formation, scientists were able to make them light-sensitive, and then “turn off compulsive behaviors, break habits they had previously inculcated and prevent habits from forming in the first place,” according to a report published in the Wall Street Journal, “Bad Habits Bent With Light” (subscription required).

We’ve reported on it before, particularly in the fascinating work of Ed Boyden at MIT (see SPIE Newsroom video interview with Boyden). In addition, Fraunhofer’s Ernst Bamberg gave a Hot Topics presentation on the topic at SPIE Photonics West 2013. But nothing makes technology like this accessible to the general public as well as relating it to something personal. Want to quit smoking? There’s a laser app for that! (Or there may be soon.)

As authors Kyle Smith and Ann Graybiel state in their paper (Neuron, 27 June 2013), “Habits are notoriously difficult to break and, if broken, are usually replaced by new routines.” But the introduction of “selective optogenetic disruption of infralimbic activity” as habits are developing (which in lab rats is known as “overtraining”) resulted in prevention of those habitual behaviors.

01 July 2013

What are we waiting for? Bring on more LEDs!

Efficient solid-state lighting (SSL) installations conserve national energy supplies and save real money for the consumer. Future applications have the potential to prevent some very serious diseases, and one light-emitting diode (LED) application is even aimed directly at saving lives.

And like all new technology, they bring the potential for new jobs and industry growth.

So it’s no wonder that SSL has been the focus of recent high-level studies released by the European Commission and by the United States’ National Academies (NA).

In line with its Digital Agenda for Europe, the EC’s “Lighting the Cities ” aims to help more European cities transition to LED-based lighting. With lighting accounting for approximately 50% of electricity consumption in cities, decreasing that about by the EU’s target of 20% by the year 2020 will have a major impact on the region’s carbon footprint, noted Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes.

Several European cities have already deployed SSL, with energy savings of up to 50-60%, the report notes.

Benefits include:
  • A greater sense of safety along with the better illumination -- more visibility, less glare -- provided by LED-based street lighting
  • An atmospheric feeling and more space for people in a public square, created by “floating” luminaires mounted on minimalist lamp posts
  • High light levels at sporting installations, without the glare and light spillage of conventional lighting
  • Lighting designs that compliment culturally important buildings, bridges and other structures
  • Further energy conservation through smart lighting that dims when no vehicles or pedestrians are detected.

In the USA, the NA report, “Assessment of Advanced Solid State Lighting” noted some challenges along with the wide-ranging potential benefits of SSL.

Consumers have been slow to accept LEDs for interior lighting, and the report urges the Department of Energy (DOE) to maintain and support even more R&D investment to increase production, improve quality and encourage acceptance.

On the plus side, the report noted, outlay costs for LED lamps for home or business lighting are now comparable to both incandescent and compact fluorescent, and are further offset by LED longevity.

Sufficient brightness is one consumer issue being addressed in LED development, and color is another. Organic LEDs (OLEDs) have an advantage over LEDs in being color-tunable for increased aesthetic satisfaction, and can be made in flexible sizes and materials that allow for new types of luminaire designs and installations.

Regarding health benefits, SSL offers potential to help correct light-related disruptions in circadian rhythms, said Mark Rea, director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute  and author of the recently released SPIE Press book Value Metrics for Better Lighting. These disruptions affect sleep, digestion and mental performance in the short term, and promote diabetes, obesity, breast cancer and cardiovascular problems in the long term, Rea said.

Modern life involves a substantial amount of day time when people are shielded from natural light and conversely significant night time when surrounded by artificial light, all of which disrupts the body’s circadian rhythms, he explained. With tunable SSL comes the ability to control the light-dark cycle. LRC is working on incorporating SSL into sustainable building practices to aid shift workers such as nurses or pilots.

From the industry perspective, the current market for LEDs includes not only general lighting but backlighting of liquid crystal display TVs, laptop computers and handheld devices, and multiple uses in automobiles and airplanes. The NA estimated approximately $10 billion globally in 2010 for LED revenues for all such applications, with 72% of the market share in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China.

While it is clear that the LED industry faces a strong future, the speed of technology development is among several factors that make it difficult to predict market futures, SPIE Industry and Market Strategist Stephen Anderson said in an article called "The LED Revolution" in the July 2013 issue of SPIE Professional magazine. He cited one estimate of the 2013 LED lighting market at $17 billion with a compound annual growth rate of 12% projected from 2011 to 2017, and another that projects the market will grow 54% from 2012 and reach $25.4 billion in 2013.

And saving lives? In South Korea, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, a sensor- and LED-based system called “Bridge of Life” has been installed on Seoul’s Mapo Bridge, from which a large number of people have jumped to their deaths. When someone approaches a sensor, the lights play messages intended to reassure and to deter the potential jumper.

We’re looking forward to hearing presentations on the latest in SSL technology in several conferences at SPIE Optics + Photonics next month.

Bring on the LEDs!

24 June 2013

Six amazing things to do with lasers

First cleaning test on a gilded brass panel of the Florence's
Baptistery North Door by Lorenzo Ghiberti. This masterpiece
is under restoration at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.
Lasers are in the news as usual, this time inspiring a list of what Lewis Carroll’s White Queen might have characterized as "six impossible things” to be believed before breakfast. But thanks to optics and photonics, these things are all possible with the help of lasers:

(1) Removing layers of pollution from centuries-old decorative plasters as well as marble and bronze statues.
Laser techniques development supported by the TEMART and CHARISMA projects at the Istituto di Fisica Applicata ‘Nello Carrara’ – Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (IFAC-CNR) have enabled restoration of such masterpieces as Donatello's Profet Abacuc, the Etruscan masterpiece Arringatore from the Trasimene Lake, wall paintings such as the painting of the Santa Maria della Scala museum complex in Siena and the catacombs of Rome, and the Florence Baptistery's North Door, a gilded-brass masterpiece by Lorenzo Ghiberti.

(2) Getting clear,detailed pictures of distant objects in space.
NPR has reported on how astronomers are using adaptive optics systems on computers to analyze the light coming in from a star, to decode the “noise” to render crisp images from the telescope images blurred by travelling through the atmosphere. (Video [6:41]: "New vistas in adaptive optics"). 

(3) Healing the living eye.
The NPR report also notes that researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are following the same principles to develop a way to see into the living eye and even heal damaged retinas using light.

(4) Recreating the fusion conditions inside our sun to provide a sustainable new energy source to meet the growing demands of Earthlings.
Nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, has the potential to provide an effectively inexhaustible source of energy. The challenge is to create here on Earth the conditions that exist in the sun's core. Several methods of harnessing fusion power have been put forth, with the primary ones confining a plasma magnetically or inertially. Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Lab are among those contributing ideas, as the U.S. National Ignition Facility moves toward proof of principle, and the European HiPER Project and the LIFE project in the U.S. work toward developing power supply networks based on the technology.

(5) Building airplane parts (and human body parts!) “grown from the ground up” through additive manufacturing (Video [5:34]).
Lighter-weight and better-performing airline parts are being built layer-by-layer by GE Aviation in a 3D printing process, and researchers at the University of Iowa are reporting on a biomanufacturing lab to “create functional human organs.”

(6) Storing the equivalent of 50,000 HD movies on a single DVD.
Researchers from Swinburne University of Technology and CSIRO in Australia have described using lasers at the nano level – one ten-thousandth the diameter of a human hair – to increase the number of points on a storage device and thus the amount of data it can hold. That's big data!

03 June 2013

Feeling the pinch of sequester? Take the survey, have your say



Scientists, researchers, and engineers attend conferences
(such as SPIE Advanced Lithography, above) to learn
about the latest research and industry developments,
network with others in the field, and locate
high-quality, right-cost vendors.
You know that scientific conferences are not junkets and that cutting national investments in technology R&D will cut national competitiveness in the global market. We hear it from every segment of photonics, and heard it particularly loud and clear at SPIE Defense, Security, and Sensing in Baltimore recently.

Now you have a new chance to join with others in getting the message out.

A survey has been opened to gather input from the scientific community about the impacts of the sequester.  We are passing along the invitation from Benjamin Corb, Director of Public Affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, for you to take part and provide the photonics perspective in this cross-disciplinary effort.

Ben says:

"As science advocates continue to advocate for increases in federal investments in research – and against the sequester – we constantly hear from our meetings the need for stories and data on impacts of sequester.  In an effort to collect the data, the attached survey was developed to poll how individual scientists in the field are feeling the pinch not only of sequester, but also the impact shrinking budgets have had on the enterprise over the past few years.


"Once data is collected, we will convert the results into a usable report with statistics and hopefully anecdotal stories told by respondents."

We hope you’ll take part in the survey, and are looking forward to see the results. Comments are welcome here, as well.

And if you didn’t catch our “no junket” post on 12 April featuring testimony to Congress on the topic from Scientist and U.S. Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey, here’s the link: Scientific conferences promote advances that grow the economy, save money, and improve lives.

30 May 2013

The miracle of photonics is taken for granted



You know that signature file you may have – “Sent from my [fabulous device name here]”? Our CEO here at SPIE, Eugene Arthurs, has one that gives credit where credit is due, to photonics: “Multiple laser processes were used to make this iPad. Many photons worked to bring you this message.”

This blog makes the case that photonics can make the world a better place, and who can argue with the convenience and ease that is enabled by these great smartphones and tablets? Yes indeed, there are photons aplenty at work. But the latest column from Mark Morford, creatively infuriating (to some) writer for SFGate, points out that those who get worked up over what’s the latest and greatest, and the absolute best, are just wasting their energy, because tomorrow it will be something else.

It’s reminiscent of the legend of the conquering Roman generals, who were accompanied in their victory parades by a slave to whisper a reminder in their ear: “All glory is fleeting.” Because, as Morford says, “The wow factor of what our consumer tech can do is now so routinely high, so commonplace, we look right past the fact we’re no longer heading toward a truly miraculous tech age; we’re already there.”

He talks about the megapixel wars: “Digital photography has been completely adequate for most consumers since about megapixel number three” as well as endless geeky debates about operating systems, apps and whatnot. He makes a great point…we take it for granted. “We all have access to everyday tech so advanced, it is indistinguishable from magic.”

So it’s a good time to take a breath and acknowledge what makes a lot of that everyday tech GO…optics and photonics. And in the interests of raising awareness, keeping the industry strong, and generating more interest in science among students, we have the National Photonics Initiative (NPI), unveiled just last week. SPIE is a cosponsor. Think about how you can contribute. How can you share what you do with people who don’t appreciate its value? Convince a politician to continue/increase science funding? Help in the schools to raise the profile of science in the curriculum? There are lots of ways. Stay tuned to the latest news from the NPI.

28 May 2013

Pythons, beetles, and jellyfish: bioinspiration for photonics applications

Ever wondered why a snake doesn’t slide sideways when headed uphill or across a slippery surface? It isn’t just a matter of muscle and motivation.

The python's underbelly scales
and heat-seeking nose are cause
for inspiration in photonics R&D.
The underbelly scales of pythons have hooks that find traction to propel them in the direction they want to go -- a concept that has been applicable in developing mechanical propulsion systems.

The heat-sensitive cells in the python’s nose help him find food; humans can use information about the creature’s nervous system to develop more effective and adaptable thermal sensors with applications from digital medical thermometers to car radiators and much more.

A 35-year-old python named Monty was the latest “animal ambassador” from the San Diego Zoo’s Centre for Bioinspiration to demonstrate to photonics researchers at a recent meeting how they and others can learn from nature to solve the world’s problems.

In addition to Monty’s visit this year, staff from the Centre for Bioinspiration at the San Diego Zoo brought a great horned owl and a caiman for bioinspiration demostrations in recent years to SPIE Smart Structures/NDE in San Diego. Zoo staff will be back in March 2014 with more as part of an ongoing collaboration between SPIE and the San Diego Zoo to promote bioinspired engineering design.

The eyes and vision of great
horned owls such as Shaman have
informed 
the work of optical designers.
Acoustical engineers found inspiration
in the construction of the owl's wings
for reducing the noise of high-speed trains.
Two additional projects reported on at the meeting borrowed inspiration from nature to help save trees and to explore the ocean depths:

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, who 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. (Read the paper via open access in the SPIE Digital Library through 31 July: "Fabrication and testing of artificial emerald ash borer visual decoys.")

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. (Read the paper via open access in the SPIE Digital Library through 31 July: "Modeling and control of a jellyfish-inspired AUV.")
 

17 May 2013

Tomatoes, juicy, delicious and even more nutritious -- thanks to LED lighting

2010 0902 G020.jpg

In the Netherlands, they have been growing food in greenhouses for a long time. Lighting systems have improved production and extended growing seasons -- now they're pumping up the nutrition too.

Research by Wageningen University (Netherlands) Greenhouse Horticulture in collaboration with Philips has shown that tomatoes can be even more nutritious when grown with LED lighting. The partnership will be continued in a joint facility for research into the application of LED lamps in horticulture (IDC LED), which was to be opened in Bleiswijk (NL) this week.

In the tomato variety that showed the strongest reaction, the tomatoes receiving extra light from the LEDs contained up to twice as much vitamin C as the tomatoes not exposed to the LEDs. The doubling of the vitamin C level was achieved with an extra dose of light similar to a quarter of the natural light intensity on a sunny day.

Wageningen University and Research Greenhouse Horticulture performed its research within the framework of the project Gezond uit de Kas (Health from the Greenhouse), financed by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs.

22 April 2013

Solar-powered broadband expands connectivity

What better opportunity than Earth Day to point out another way that photonics plays a role in improving the planet?

Awareness of the importance of taking care of the earth is becoming more widespread, and most importantly, not just in the affluent countries of the world. In fact, the developing nations are where some of the most innovative efforts are taking place. We've highlighted micro-solar projects in Africa and elsewhere, and the previous post about the LEDs being used to protect livestock from lions shows another brilliant but simple use of photonics.

Here's one that combines solar energy and an expanding communications infrastructure in India. AirJaldi Networks, a company that provides solar-powered Wi-Fi for the rural masses, was plagued by the difficulty of maintaining power to its mobile phone towers in remote areas, especially during the monsoon season. Battery backups were expensive and frequently necessary. As GreenTech Solar reports:
Here’s how it works: every client has a router (just like you or I have at home) that gets connectivity via the airwaves and bandwidth provided by the telecom companies. AirJaldi mounts relays on small towers that receive a signal from other relays or a main distribution point. Those relays send the signal to AirJaldi’s clients. The main difference between our systems and theirs is the vast distance covered, which requires stronger routers.
Next up is converting AirJaldi's network operations centers to solar, a more expensive proposition. But the first one will be converted soon.

This is a step along the road toward making broadband available to everyone. In 2010, Finland declared that access to broadband is a human right. At present the majority of subscribers in the five Indian states served by AirJaldi (jaldi = "fast" in Hindi) are schools, nonprofits, and the like. But the company is hoping to change that.
AirJaldi believes internet access is a right for every citizen and must be provided by fiat. As founder Michael Ginguld puts it: “We have come to expect and accept that electricity, water and roads are a given. Internet should be the same.” He’s got a good argument, too. For every 10 percent increase in internet access, a country sees a 1 percent increase in GDP.

18 April 2013

'Lion Lights': A bright solution with LEDs

Sometimes innovative technologies come from the wildest places.

Such was the case for Richard Turere, a teen-age Maasai boy from Kitengela, Kenya, who only wanted to protect his family's herd of cattle, goats and sheep from the lions who roamed the savannah near the border of the Nairobi National Park.

At the age of nine, Turere was given the responsibility of  looking after the family cattle. After two years of losing too many of the livestock to lions while the family was sleeping, and with little access to technical information, he found a photonics-based method to keep the predators at bay.

Turere explained at a recent TED conference how he had noticed that the lions were unafraid of the fires he built to keep them away. They learned to skirt around them and remain in the shadows, still able to hunt vulnerable animals.

However, the lions were afraid of moving lights. They wouldn’t come near the Turere family stockade if someone walked around with a flashlight at night. After a few weeks of contemplation and experimentation, he came up with a simple and low-cost system to protect his family's source of meat and milk.

Turere, 11 at the time, put together an automated lighting system with LED bulbs from broken flashlights and a car battery powered by a solar panel. His system of “Lion Lights” is designed to flash light intermittently into the dark night, tricking lions into thinking someone is walking around with a flashlight.

His solution has been so successful, according to SPIE Professional magazine, that several neighboring families have asked for Lion Lights. So far, 75 such systems have been installed around Kenya.

In addition, Turere's Lion Lights provided a solution that benefits the animals that inhabit Nairobi National Park, which has the world's largest density of lions, and the tourist economy built around the wildlife of Africa.

It's an inspiring story and a true example of photonics for a better world. (Watch Richard's TED talk to hear him tell the story.)

12 April 2013

Scientific conferences promote advances that grow the economy, save money, and improve lives

In order for research to become useful, researchers and developers from academia, industry and government have to share their needs and ideas. Everyone in the field knows that. Most people would agree that much of the value and action-steps come from hallway conversations among presenters and attendees.

And nearly everyone in the field has a great deal of apprehension about the serious threat to global technology leadership and economic viability wrought by current U.S. restrictions on travel by government employees.

In the photonics sector, this includes the scientists and engineers at NASA, NIST, NIH, DOD, DOE, NSF, NOAA, and several other agencies.

Rep. Rush Holt is one of a very few
professional scientists serving in the
U.S. Congress. (Photo: Kate Bohler,
Asia Society/Flickr)
Scientist and U.S. Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey, formerly the assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (and the man who beat “Watson,” IBM’s computer system in a simulated round of “Jeopardy” in 2011) told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in February how he views scientific conferences.

"I know firsthand how important scientific conferences and meetings are. The informal conversations, as well as the formal presentations and poster sessions that go into a conference among scientists from different institutions, lead to new collaborations that have the promise of new discoveries. These are not fancy junkets.

"Many of the insights that have driven our understanding of science forward in recent years have been possible only through the collaboration of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of scientists scattered across the globe … many insights are possible only because of close, personal interactions among scientists who see each regularly: those who do not work at the same university or laboratory must rely on interacting with each other at conferences."

In optics and photonics alone, these insights are responsible for night vision and laser targeting, cures for disease, broadband communications, sustainable energy generation, cyber security for business and law enforcement, more effective surgical techniques, and much more.

And these insights are the fuel that drives technology innovation, creating new business opportunities and ensuring leadership in the global economy.

Holt is not alone in bringing this message to Congress and lobbying for adjustment to the regulations. Scientific and engineering societies such as SPIE are taking action as well.

Robert Lieberman, chair of the SPIE committee on Engineering Science, and Technology Policy, and Eugene Arthurs, SPIE CEO, have written to influential Members of Congress and the OSTP with a similar message, and SPIE President William Arnold and Arthurs have contacted society constituents who are working in government with a message of support.

"While SPIE recognizes the importance of reining in wasteful spending and improving governmental accountability, these new restrictions are extreme in their efforts to limit federal employees' participation in the scientific process,” Lieberman wrote to Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. Mikulski is chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science and a member of several appropriations and other committees. “These regulations will have long-term repercussions for the ability of scientists to exchange information and for the economic recovery of this nation."

As Arnold’s and Arthurs’ letter to constituents pointed out, the impact of the regulations is heightened by federal budget cuts mandated by sequestration.

A move by SPIE of its Defense, Security, and Sensing from Orlando, Florida, to Baltimore, Maryland, was prompted in part by recognition that federal agencies need to control costs.

Congressional Visits Day gave voluntees from the photonics
community a chance to talk with Members of Congress
about community concerns -- including the ability for
government scientists, researchers, and engineers to meet
in person with colleagues at conferences. (SPIE photo)
SPIE sponsored volunteers who were among approximately 200 from around the country at the recent Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day. They asked for revision of regulations in order to support travel of government employees to scienfic conferences. (They also urged support for the National Photonics Initiative (NPI), to foster increased collaboration and coordination between industry, government, and academia to identify and advance areas of photonics that are critical for maintaining U.S. competitiveness and national security.)

You can help, too: Add your voice to those informing Congress about why scientific meetings are important to your work.