On October 21st, 1983, the General Conference of Weights and Measures adopted the current value of the speed of light at 299,792.458 km/s. To commemorate this milestone, hundreds of optics and photonics companies, organizations, and institutes all over the world organize activities every year on this date to celebrate the Day of Photonics and how this technology is impacting our daily lives.
At EFFECT Photonics, we want to celebrate the Day of Photonics by answering some commonly asked questions about photonics and its impact on the world.
What is photonics?
Photonics is the study and application of photon (light) generation, manipulation, and detection, often aiming to create, control, and sense light signals.
The term photonics emerged in the 60s and 70s with the development of the first semiconductor lasers and optical fibers. Its goals and even the name “photonics” are born from its analogy with electronics: photonics aims to generate, control, and sense photons (the particles of light) in similar ways to how electronics does with electrons (the particles of electricity).
What is photonics used for?
Photonics can be applied in many ways. For the Day of Photonics, we will explore two categories:
Light is the fastest information carrier in the universe and can transmit this information while dissipating less heat and energy than electrical signals. Thus, photonics can dramatically increase the speed, reach, and flexibility of communication networks and cope with the ever-growing demand for more data. And it will do so at a lower energy cost, decreasing the Internet’s carbon footprint.
A classic example is optical fiber communications. The webpage you are reading was originally a stream of 0 and 1s that traveled through an optical fiber to reach you.
Outside of optical fibers, photonics can also deliver solutions beyond what traditional radio communications can offer. For example, optical transmission over the air could handle links between different sites of a mobile network, links between cars, or to a satellite out in space. At some point, we may even see the use of Li-Fi, a technology that replaces indoor Wi-Fi links with infrared light.
There are multiple sensing application markets, but their core technology is the same. They need a small device that sends out a known pulse of light, accurately detects how the light comes back, and calculates the properties of the environment from that information. It’s a simple but quite powerful concept.
This concept is already being used to implement LIDAR systems that help self-driving cars determine the location and distance of people and objects. However, there is also potential to use this concept in medical and agri-food applications, such as looking for undesired growths in the human eye or knowing how ripe an apple is.
Will photonics replace electronics?
No, each technology has its strengths.
When transmitting information from point A to B, photonics can do it faster and more efficiently than electronics. For example, optical fiber can transmit information at the speed of light and dissipate less heat than electric wires.
On the other hand, since electricity can be manipulated at the nanometer level more easily than light, electronics are usually better for building computers. There are some specific areas where photonic computers could outperform traditional electronic ones, especially given the rise of quantum computers that can be made with photonic components. However, most computer products will remain electronic for the foreseeable future.
Thus, photonics is not expected to replace electronics but to collaborate and integrate strongly with it. Most future applications will involve photonic systems transmitting or sensing information then processed by electronic computers.