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Science of light will revolutionalize 21st century, says BU expert
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.
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
"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
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 www.bu.edu/photonics.