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US National Photonics Initiative calls for new funding plan

23 May 2013

‘Collaborative alliance’ also wants photonics explicitly included in President Obama’s new manufacturing institutes.

The US-based National Photonics Initiative (NPI), an alliance between industry and academic representatives born out of recommendations in last year’s National Research Council report on optics and photonics, has identified a series of measures that it believes are crucial to ensure the future prosperity of the sector in the country.

A white paper published by the collaborative group, whose founding sponsors are optics.org publisher SPIE and The Optical Society (OSA), makes several recommendations – including the establishment of public-private partnership similar to that being pursued in Europe, as well as a shared foundry service tailored for US military requirements.

SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs points to the programs already initiated in other parts of the world as evidence that the US could be left behind if it does not come up with its own co-ordinated plan to support photonics.

“The European Union, Germany, Korea, Taiwan and China all recognize the importance of photonics, and have taken action,” he says. “The Department of Defense has long supported photonics, and we have seen the advantage provided to our troops. But now more photonics research is needed to maintain our national security in the face of growing non-traditional threats. The time is now for the US to make the right investments in the crucial capabilities of the future.”

In a webinar to launch the initiative, the NPI’s advisory committee chairman Tom Baer from the Stanford Photonics Research Center echoed that sentiment. He said that although the US has been a leader in photonics for the past half-century, the rest of the world “has essentially caught up with us”.

Baer added that the NPI represented the first example of a co-ordinated effort between the five different societies supporting the initiative (the Laser Institute of America (LIA) IEEE Photonics Society and American Institute of Physics (AIP) are also sponsors), whose first priority designed to engage with US federal government. “A real precedent has been set, and is testimony to a collaborative spirit,” he said.

He also cited the Fraunhofer model in Germany as a particularly effective way in which academia and industry can be brought together - an approach that fosters exactly the kind of public-private and interdisciplinary collaboration now required.

NPI video: "Light our future"

Key recommendations
Defense is one of five key application sectors targeted in the white paper, written by more than 100 contributors - around half from private companies - along with advanced manufacturing, healthcare, energy, and information and communications technology (ICT).

Aside from repeated calls for more funding of photonics-related research in each of those five areas, the paper does make a series of more specific recommendations that the NPI believes will either reposition or maintain the US as a market leader. They include:

     • Develop federal programs that encourage greater collaboration between US industry, academia, and government labs

     • Increase investment in education and job training programs – including a two-year certificate and undergraduate degree programs in laser materials processing, and incorporating photonics technician training and certificate programs into existing education and retraining programs such as those for veterans

     • Review international trade practices impeding free and fair trade and the current US criteria restricting the sale of certain photonic technologies overseas

For advanced manufacturing, the NPI wants to see greater investment in high-power laser technology, as well as a co-ordinated national effort focused on improving understanding of laser-material interactions to aid future applications in heavy industry and processing ceramics, plastics, composites and glass.

Composites and glass are two natural target materials for ultrafast pulsed lasers, and this is one specific area where the NPI would like to see targeted funding. “The US can be a leader in new and innovative areas of manufacturing involving a new generation of high-power and low-cost ultrashort pulsed lasers, as well as additive manufacturing,” states the paper.

It also makes the point that while universities often have the equipment and capability needed for innovation, they lack a connection to real-world problems or opportunities where those innovations could be applied.

“There is a need for the creation of applied research and development institutions dedicated to photonics that would unite academia with industry and national labs in existing and emerging regional industrial hubs across the United States,” it claims.

“Photonic institutes located within regional industrial hubs would provide natural ecosystems for innovation and matching private funding. These institutes could also provide facilities to support educational and retraining activities.”

Engaging with manufacturers
One existing initiative that photonics could benefit from is President Obama’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), designed to establish regional hubs to accelerate development and adoption of cutting-edge manufacturing technologies.

“Photonics technology should be explicitly included in the NNMI institutes because of its broad role in supporting advancement across all sectors of manufacturing,” suggests the NPI paper.

The alliance is also keen to see a review of international trade practices that it believes is impeding free and fair trade. Part of the problem involves restrictions on the sale of some photonics technologies overseas because of the strictness of the long-standing International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) legislation.

The second part of the problem, according to the NPI paper, relates to what it calls “aggressive foreign pricing practices and IP violations” that are allowing competitors to gain market share. “This threatens the survival of US communications equipment suppliers, communications equipment jobs, and telecommunications network security,” it says.

In the “defense and security” section of the paper, the NPI calls for investment in a shared foundry service that it believes will ensure that the US stays on the cutting edge of emerging photonic integrated circuit (PIC) technology – and would allow PICs to be produced at an affordable cost for both military and commercial applications. Gigapixel-scale infrared sensors to image very wide areas day and night are also targeted.

Communications “needs disruptive innovation”
NPI sponsor Infinera, one of two named industrial collaborators, is one company already at the forefront of PIC technology, having developed its products with a focus on telecommunications. Addressing the webinar, Steve Grubb from the California-based firm said that a disruptive technology would be needed to meet future internet demands – on top of the existing photonics infrastructure that has already enabled a five-orders-of-magnitude increase in online traffic.

“An investment now in a shared foundry service that would help US companies in the design, manufacturing, and packaging of next-generation integrated photonic circuits at an affordable cost will permit larger-scale deployment of high-performance communication and sensor technology,” says the paper.

On the healthcare and biophotonics front, the paper highlights the increasing influence of technologies such as optical coherence tomography (OCT) – a market said by analyst firm BCC Research to be worth around $645 million in 2012 – and fluorescence-based gene sequencing equipment.

As the home to the world’s most technologically advanced but expensive healthcare system, the US is regarded as a world leader in this area. But the paper warns that a focused effort will be needed to maintain that position.

It recommends the development of new imaging standards and software methods to automate extraction of useful diagnostic information from huge, multi-dimensional data sets, as well as funding for the development of advanced but affordable diagnostic devices.

Sharing big data
The NPI also wants to see funding to help create an IT infrastructure that will allow researchers and clinicians to share large data sets, while another recommendation is aimed at accelerating clinical trials to make them more affordable.

That was a theme picked up at last week’s LASER World of Photonics event in Germany, where an applications panel highlighted that a new photonics technology would typically require 15 years and more than $100 million to proceed to clinical use: a cost that very few investors are willing to stomach, given the uncertainties involved.

“Increased engagement among industry, academia, government labs, and the National Institutes of Health would benefit all parties,” says the NPI paper, also calling for expanded investment in multidisciplinary centers to help bring the medical and photonics communities closer together.

To get involved: Baer said that the inaugural webinar was the first of a series of such events, with the initial aim of generating feedback from the US photonics community and raising awareness in government. To find out more about the NPI, or to get involved, click here.

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