Technology Forum: Lasers and Optics

January 22, 2009

Joining us for this discussion are Nicolas Gayraud, Renovalia Energy and Rob Morris, Ocean Optics.

The field of lasers and optics continues to emerge as a major growth area in the spectroscopy market. With laser-based techniques such as NIR, MIR, and more recently, Far-IR or terahertz becoming more prominent, laser sources are becoming critical to research. And the lenses through which light is viewed could not be more central or critical to materials analysis, making optics a hot topic as well.

Joining us for this discussion are Nicolas Gayraud, Renovalia Energy and Rob Morris, Ocean Optics.

What is the current state of the optics and lasers marketplace? What trends do you see emerging?

Gayraud: Several novel trends have emerged within the last few years in photonics. Two of these may lead optical research in the near future. The first one is the development of lasers in electromagnetic regions not yet covered (or at a prohibitive cost) by coherent and powerful light sources (such as the mid-IR). The recent demonstration of quantum cascade lasers operating in the 3 to 3.5μm-region is a good example of that trend.

Another very important aspect is the practical application of photonic crystals in various domains. Many theoretical demonstrations have been reported over the last five years. They now need to be proven both technologically and economically viable, which represents a tremendous effort.

Morris: As in other industries affected by the economy, we may see some consolidation in optics. Certainly, the emergence of alternative suppliers in China and elsewhere for low-cost, high-volume optics will continue to have an impact, if only to highlight what sets the more sophisticated, custom-component optics houses apart – product quality, engineering skill, design creativity and so on.

Are you planning to attend the SPIE Photonics West conference in San Jose, California? What are you most eager to see there?

Gayraud: Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend the SPIE Photonics West conference, due to professional commitments. However, I hope this conference will offer the attending people a variety of topics and interesting research results. I believe events with a diversity of subjects are always beneficial in fields such as optics and photonics that include a broad range of investigation fields.

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Morris: Yes, we are attending and exhibiting. First, we are interested in seeing how attendance might be affected by recent economic developments. On the technical side, we’ll be looking for truly disruptive technologies – advances that have the chance to change the way people do things, or open new markets to exploit. Also, it will be interesting to see any advances in LEDs – there have been many in recent years – as well as any developments in multispectral imaging. One other thing that comes to mind is what sort of presence the photovoltaic market will have at the show.

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges in optics?

Gayraud: There are many challenges our field will have to face in the future and it is difficult to make an exhaustive list of all of them. However, I will mention two of them, which will probably find a place at the very top of that list.

As mentioned previously, the application (or should I say the applications) of photonic crystals in industrial problems is, to my opinion, one of the biggest and most exciting challenges to come. The properties that PCs exhibit are extremely interesting and may open a brand new set of possibilities. However, much work still has to be done, especially in terms of fabrication and costs reduction to make that technology industrially competitive.

Another important challenge is the development of single-photon sources and detectors. Such devices, if made efficient, would mean a tremendous evolution in quantum information processing and security. In general case, the improvement of the efficiency of laser sources and detectors is and will remain an important aspect of photonics in the future.

Morris: The good news is that because optics are used across so many different industries, the optics industry itself should be less prone to the downturn in segments like the auto industry. The bad news is that collectively, downturns across industries that rely on optics are still downturns. Another area that bears watching is the defense industry, as the new presidential administration takes office. What changes might happen there? How could equipment needs change under new leadership? And so on.

In what ways have techniques such as optical coherence tomography, molecular imaging, and spectroscopy contributed to improvements in medical diagnosis and treatment?

Gayraud: Although medical diagnosis and treatment are not my fields of research, I believe optical coherence tomography as well as molecular imaging and spectroscopy have helped improved medical care over the last few years by giving the medical community a whole set of diversified and complementary tools. Medicine is a very important application of optical research. The techniques previously mentioned provide non-invasive methods of detecting and measuring all kinds of essential parameters for a good medical diagnosis and possible treatments. By improving the imaging resolution, the required measuring times, allowing observations at bigger depths, these techniques provide significant advantages in modern medicine (ophthalmology, neurology, and cardiology are examples of fields in which these techniques have permitted significant improvements).

Morris: Generally, what all those things have in common is that they make diagnosis more efficient – by providing more data, by costing less than existing methods, by being largely non-invasive (or at least minimally invasive), and so on. These are advances that truly can save lives. A good example is point of care equipment that uses spectroscopy to help analyze blood, right at the patient’s bedside. That would not have been possible with the spectroscopy technology of ten years ago.

What impact will advances in laser technology have on terahertz or far-infrared research?

Gayraud: Advances in laser technology have always corresponded to the development of new applications in imaging, communication...

Similarly, the development of new terahertz sources would correspond to great advances in domains such as spectroscopy, security, astronomy, and medicine. Time-domain spectroscopy is one example of the many applications in the terahertz domain as well as detection of cancerous cells, screening of people for security purposes (airports and train stations checkpoints), measurement of ionic species concentration in the atmosphere (monitoring of the ozone cycle), which could greatly benefit laser developments in this range of the electromagnetic spectrum.