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.

09 April 2013

Photonics for a healthier brain!

Brain mapping -- using light to observe and track neuron activity in the brain -- holds much promise for treating some of the most troubling conditions. Among its goals are treatment of stroke, epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease, and even depression.

The field is claiming the attention of R&D funders as well.

A White House announcement last week of a potential$100 million funding pot for brain research, as part of the presidential budget proposal for fiscal year 2014, made waves that echoed the response to an announcement last month of a far-reaching brain research program in Europe.

As Mike Hatcher, editor of, noted, the White House-proposed BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnoloiges) initiative still requires backing by a fractious Congress. “But if the public-private scheme does go ahead it will mirror an even larger funding proposal in Europe, where -- along with graphene research -- the ‘Human Brain Project’ was earmarked as one of only two flagship, long-term science programs,” Hatcher said.

Optogenetics: a new tool

“Critics have suggested that a fundamental difficulty with brain research is the lack of tools available to stimulate and monitor specific neural functions,” he said.”That, possibly, is where photonics comes in -- more specifically in the emerging form of ‘optogenetics’."

Developers of optogenetics -- the use of light to control neurons in living tissue -- were recently announced as winners of Denmark's €1 million annual brain research prize. Winners are Gero Miesenböck (University of Oxford), Ernst Bamberg (Max-Planck Institute of Biophysics), Peter Hegemann (Humboldt University), Georg Nagel (University of Würzburg), Ed Boyden (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Karl Deisseroth (Stanford University).

The brain prize-awarding body (the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Prize Foundation) said of the winners, "Together these scientists laid the foundations for the revolutionary technique optogenetics, which will provide us with entirely new, fundamental knowledge of the complicated functions of the brain (and make) it easier to investigate diseases of the brain such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, pain disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD and addiction."

Activated by photonics

At SPIE Photonics West in January 2012, a standing-room-only audience heard Deisseroth describe some of the implications for the understanding of behavior.

Above, Britton Chance, seen as a central figure in
the development of brain imaging techniques,
demonstrates a head-worn brain-imaging device.
Based on their work in the 1970s and ’80s, he and
collaborators made a critical discovery that
spurred the biomedical use of diffuse light.
Temporally short, near-infrared (NIR) light
pulses were injected into the brain (the light
diffused through the skull), and the changes in the
temporal shapes of the pulses were measured upon
exit. The changes in shape quantitatively revealed the
blood oxygen dynamics of the animal and, soon
thereafter, the human brain in 1988. Since this
experiment, the field of photon migration and optical
imaging and spectroscopy has grown dramatically.
(From the Journal of Biomedical Optics, April 2000, editorial
by Arjun Yodh (University of Pennsylvania) and
Bruce Tromberg (University of California/Irvine).
Current advances exploit developments in both the biochemical markers added into neural circuitry, and the optical methods used to then activate or regulate them -- the twin principles on which optogenetics is based, Deisseroth said.

Some of the most fascinating work involves mapping the neural dynamics accompanying the manifestation of certain depressive symptoms, a potentially profound area of study.

Once the neural circuitry involved in depressive states is mapped, it might then be possible to affect those mental states by changing the behavior of the neurons. Deisseroth described how similar optogenetics approaches were now shedding light on the influence of dopamine on risk/reward behavior, and on the significance of certain neurons to cocaine addiction.

"It is still early days with a great deal left to understand about the causal dynamics involved in these states of mind, but it is a very interesting area," he said.

Optogenetics, diffusion tensor and other magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques, spectroscopy, optical coherence tomography (OCT), and multimodal microscopy are among techniques being tested for the toolkit. Recent video interviews on the topic include work by Joe Culver (Washington University at St. Louis) and Elizabeth Hillman (Columbia University).

Solving the brain's mysteries

The recent funding proposals reflect both the interest and the need to solve the brain’s mysteries.

The European Commission announcement said,"The ‘Human Brain Project’ will create the world's largest experimental facility for developing the most detailed model of the brain, for studying how the human brain works and ultimately to develop personalised treatment of neurological and related diseases. This research lays the scientific and technical foundations for medical progress that has the potential to will dramatically improve the quality of life for millions of Europeans.”

President Obama’s remarks in announcing the BRAIN initiative touched on similar points, and were heavy on photonics: "In the last decade alone, scientists have made a number of landmark discoveries that now create the opportunity to unlock the mysteries of the brain, including the sequencing of the human genome, the development of new tools for mapping neuronal connections, the increasing resolution of imaging technologies, and the explosion of nanoscience … by combining advanced genetic and optical techniques, scientists can now use pulses of light to determine how specific cell activities in the brain affect behavior. In addition, through the integration of neuroscience and physics, researchers can now use high-resolution imaging technologies to observe how the brain is structurally and functionally connected in living humans.”

We're looking forward to new developments in these amazing photonics technologies!