Two plays by Federico Garcia Lorca - Blood Wedding at the BU Theatre Studio 210 through October 13, and Yerma at SFA's Studio 104 through October 14

Vol. V No. 9   ·   12 October 2001


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Hooked on Photonics
Science of light will revolutionalize 21st century, says BU expert

By David J. Craig

To many people, the word photonics conjures up thoughts of esoteric devices found in supercomputers and in underground telecommunications networks. But according to Cliff Robinson, the assistant director of BU's Photonics Center, photonics is more than a buzzword to describe the way engineers are harnessing light to advance computing technology.

During an October 5 lecture at Boston's Museum of Science, Cliff Robinson, assistant director of BU's Photonics Center, said that photonics will help control health-care costs in the 21st century. Photo by Blake Fitch  

The science of light impacts almost every aspect of our daily lives and forms the basis of a technology that will define the 21st century, just as electronics defined the 20th century, Robinson said in a lecture at the Boston Museum of Science on October 5.

Robinson explained in his lecture, Hooked on Photonics, how a recent explosion in the availability of Internet bandwidth will reshape personal computing and how other photonics-based technologies soon will transform not just communications but health-care systems, the economy, and environmental protection strategies.

"Photonics will be to the future what electronics has been to the past," he said. "Photonics is vital to the next wave of prosperity for our nation and for the world. The optical Internet, which will replace the existing Internet, will change everything about our society, in the same way that railways and the industrial revolution did."

Speed of light fantastic
In the last 10 years, advances in
the use of optical fibers, which are replacing copper wires as the backbone of telecommunications networks, have revolutionized data transmission. Optical fibers are created by pulling heated glass into a strand thinner than a human hair. Light then is shined through the glass fiber, in patterns similar to Morse code, and used to transmit data over large distances almost instantaneously.

By expanding the number of wavelengths that are shined through a fiber simultaneously and by creating devices that can pulse light into the fiber at ever-more-frequent intervals, scientists in the last five years have greatly increased the amount of information that can be sent down a single strand of glass fiber. In fact, the so-called bandwidth of such fiber is growing so rapidly that industry can't manufacture products that make use of the technology fast enough or in a cost-efficient manner.

"The term Moore's Law commonly is used to describe the fact that the power of [silicon] computing chips doubles every 18 months, but the growth in bandwidth is like Moore's Law squared," Robinson said, referring to the term named for Intel Corporation's CEO, Gordon Moore. "The development of electronics and silicon is not keeping up with the pace of the development of optical systems."

Within a few years, however, the ubiquity of fiber optics and the virtually unlimited bandwidth it allows will enable a family to download an entire movie in their home in real time and access popular computer software from a distant network so quickly that there will be no need to keep the program on a personal computer.

"What that means is the computer will move away from the desktop and into the network," said Robinson. "The large mainframe-like supercomputers will reside in the network, as will software applications. It really doesn't make sense for all of us to have our own PC with our own versions of commercial software on it. So a computer will become just an access device to this network, a simple appliance."

Noninvasive health care
The impact of photonics on the nation's economy is already unmistakable. The market for commercial products that rely on the power of light, from laser pointers to liquid crystal display (LCD) screens to compact disc and digital videodisc players, today is valued at $150 billion, according to the Opto-Electronics Industry Development Association.

And amazing inventions are on the horizon -- recently a British company created a prototype of a visual monitor just two millimeters thick made of polymers that emit light when charged with extremely little electricity; some observers believe it will replace the television. In addition, BU scientists currently are researching a novel way to detect bacteria using an organic chemical that produces a light-emitting chemical reaction when it comes in contact with certain bacteria. The technology, Robinson said, could be used to guard against chemical and biological warfare attacks.

But perhaps no applications of light will be more crucial in the 21st century than those used in health care, according to Robinson. In addition to the growing field of laser surgery, endoscopy, and medical imaging mechanisms such as the X ray and the MRI, light technology now is being used to develop ways of diagnosing and treating cancer, glaucoma, and diabetes that are less invasive than current methods.

Photodynamic therapy, for instance, now can activate cancer-fighting drugs only when the drugs are in the vicinity of a tumor, by focusing light on that part of the body. The procedure promises to alleviate much of the suffering caused by chemotherapy treatment, in which drugs attack not just cancer cells but all quickly metabolizing cells in the body.

The BU Photonics Center, meanwhile, is preparing to launch SOLX, a company that is developing a laser treatment for glaucoma. The light is used to open a drainage system that normally releases fluid from behind the eye but becomes clogged in those suffering from glaucoma. "Glaucoma is currently treated by pharmaceuticals," Robinson said. "You have to put drops in your eye every single day of your life. The light is being used to replace pharmaceuticals, and the treatment would take place once per year, which certainly is beneficial to the patient." The company has created prototypes and now is conducting clinical trials.

In addition, people with diabetes may no longer have to periodically prick themselves to draw blood to test their glucose level, thanks to new monitors that can gauge the level by shining a light through the skin.

"All these techniques using light to replace invasive procedures will mean reduced medical costs," said Robinson, "because they involve less surgery, shorter hospital stays, and faster recovery for the patient, as well as increased patient comfort and safety."

Before coming to BU in 1998, Robinson developed optics and photonics technologies and worked in business development at several companies, including IBM and Raytheon. At the Photonics Center, he develops business partnerships between the center and industrial companies and is involved in the investment and incubation of new seed companies.

BU's Photonics Center was founded in 1994 to enter into partnerships with investors and start-ups, turning new light-enabled technologies into commercial products. There are now six companies being developed in the center's incubator, which offers access to a $80 million facility, including laboratories, as well as to BU faculty. Two companies -- PhotoDetection Systems and U.S. Genomics -- have been successfully launched from the center's incubator.

The Photonics Center's Annual Symposium will be held on Thursday, November 8. For more information, visit



12 October 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations