31 Dec 2013
From laser-printed spaceships to vision implants for the blind – the photonics stories that helped define the year.
To round up the year in optics and photonics, we’ve selected the most popular articles from each month of 2013, according to the optics.org page view statistics.
From laser fusion to 3D printing, graphene to laser headlamps and bionic vision to ultrashort-pulse sources, the list represents many of the hottest technologies in development right now – and perhaps offers a glimpse of the photonics-powered future.
So here’s our story of photonics in 2013, told month-by-month:
• January – Heliatek achieves 12% organic solar cell efficiency: researchers at the Dresden, Germany, firm regarded by many as the leader in organic photovoltaics development reports a record-breaking performance for a small organic cell. The company has spent 2013 looking for the major investment still needed to reduce production costs and scale up manufacturing.
• February – How to laser print a spaceship...inside a minute: Nanoscribe CEO Martin Hermatschweiler chose to debut the company’s new high-resolution tabletop 3D printer at the Photonics West 2013 trade show, and it clearly caught the imagination of both the industry and the wider public. Of course, the “spaceship” wasn’t quite that – it was actually a micron-scale replica of the “Hellcat” design from the popular Wing Commander video game of the 1990s – but that hasn’t stopped a YouTube video of its creation (below) gaining nearly a quarter of a million views so far.
• March – Graphene ‘multiplies’ power of light: A research team led by Frank Koppens at Barcelona’s Institute of Photonic Science reports that the carbon monolayer material can convert a single absorbed photon into multiple electrons – suggesting its potential future usefulness as an energy harvester. Meanwhile the European Commission selected the “wonder material” for one of two flagship research projects to receive up to one billion euros in funding over the next decade – along with the “human brain” initiative.
• April – Implants offer hope in fight against retinitis pigmentosa: Clinical trials of two different types of implants – one from Germany’s Retina Implant and another developed by California’s Second Sight – show how a limited form of vision can be restored to people blinded by the disease retinitis pigmentosa. As might be expected with such early-stage trials, some patients were affected by stability problems with the devices – although Retina Implant told us it was confident that these had now been solved in laboratory work. Meanwhile Second Sight’s Argus II implant won a place in Time magazine’s top 25 inventions of the year.
• May – LASER 2013: Laser market ‘at record high’ – analyst: As attention once again turned to the giant laser trade show in Munich, veteran industry analyst Arnold Meyer told delegates that the global market for laser materials processing systems had reached a new record high of close to €8 billion in 2012. That corresponded to around 12 per cent of the overall machine-tool market, with the share of fiber lasers being adopted in those systems increasingly rapidly.
• June – Market for fiber-optic sensors to hit $4BN by 2017: Attention remained on markets in June as technology consultancy ElectroniCast predicted that spending on fiber-optic sensors would grow at a compound average rate of more than 20 per cent for the next five years. We’ll have to wait until 2017 to see if they were right…
• July – LED forecast plays down GaN-on-silicon impact: With the cost of solid-state replacement bulbs now below $10 in some cases, everybody is tipping the LED lighting market to soar in 2014 as a mass switch to more efficient illumination gathers real pace. But while some believe that fabrication of gallium-nitride (GaN) light-emitting chips on silicon substrates is the key to making the technology truly affordable, analysts at Lux Research are not so sure. They predicted that only one in ten LED “epiwafers” – the semiconducting discs upon which the devices are made – will be based on silicon by the end of the decade, with sapphire continuing to dominate as the most significant base material.
• August – NIF laser fusion experiment yields record energy: The past 12 months have seen priorities change at the world’s largest laser facility, with the Lawrence Livermore program now focusing more on science and nuclear stockpile stewardship and less on its bold attempt to demonstrate fusion with energy gain. In the summer, the lab produced a record neutron yield, and while rumors circulated later in the year that researchers there had passed a crucial milestone in their attempts to harness fusion, the ultimate goal remains an elusive one.
• September – Smaller, faster IR sensors suit mobility applications: Could the smart phones of the future feature thermal imaging as standard? Perhaps not, but FLIR Systems’ work to adapt an Apple iPhone with a prototype thermal camera at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International expo caught readers’ attention. With BAE Systems also working hard to miniaturize the technology with smooth video output, night-vision goggles and driving aids are set to benefit first.
• October – Qioptiq set for Excelitas sale: One of the most recognizable brands in the photonics industry, Qioptiq is also one of the largest – it generated annual sales of $360 million in 2012. But there has been speculation about its future ever since Candover Partners, its private-equity owner since 2005, began selling off assets in the wake of the global financial crisis. That speculation ended in October 2013, when a deal with Excelitas, another private-equity backed technology firm, was agreed. Later that month, the deal was done.
• November – BMW laser headlamps show the road ahead: LED-based headlamps are only just beginning to proliferate from high-end cars to the mainstream, but BMW is already working on the next technology for forward lighting – a laser system designed to boost the “high beam” of an LED headlamp. Based on a high-power blue laser diode and a remote phosphor, the technology was demonstrated at September’s Frankfurt Motor Show and could debut in production models by the end of 2014.
• December – Ultrafast team wins German Future Prize: It’s been talked about as the next revolution in laser manufacturing for many years, and December saw ultrashort-pulse sources recognized at the very highest level with the German president’s annual Future Prize. Awarded to a collaboration between the giant engineering firm Bosch, laser and machine tool company Trumpf and researchers at Jena’s Friedrich-Schiller University, this technology is now said to be moving into a “decisive phase” as applications proliferate.