A green revolution

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    Climate change is going to force mankind to change the way it behaves, especially when it comes to energy consumption. Photonics could have a significant role to play.


    The 5th Science and Technology in Society forum took place in Kyoto, 5–7 October, and was attended by over 750 prestigious scientists, industry leaders and policymakers from 91 countries (see http://www.stsforum.org). The opinions expressed at the event regarding climate change and energy consumption are a sombre warning to mankind. “We now realize that we can't only think about mitigating climate change, but must adapt to it as well,” concluded a session on the socioeconomic impact of climate change. “We are on a cusp of a transformation in the way that we produce and consume energy. The world is addicted to cheap energy, but with fossil fuel prices spiralling upwards and concerns about climate change, energy has become a front-page concern,” stated the summary of another session on energy generation.

    So what's the connection to photonics? The answer is that optics technologies, such as photovoltaics, LED lighting, electronic paper and organic displays, and power-efficient optical communications equipment, are very likely to play a valuable role in helping to address this energy problem. Indeed, the concept of using photonics as part of a green revolution in energy generation and consumption has inspired a new dedicated three-day conference on the topic next year.

    “OPTOmism: Photonics for the Green Revolution” (http://www.optomismshow.com) will take place for the first time next summer (18–20 May 2009) in Santa Clara, USA (http://www.optomismshow.com), and is being organized by the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA) in the USA, and the publisher Penwell. It aims to bring together researchers, engineers and industry executives, who are involved in developing green photonics, and put them together under the same roof so that they can examine the current status of relevant technologies, explore their business implications and review technology roadmaps. Confirmed speakers so far, include two Nobel prize winners for physics — Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Arno Penzias, now a partner of New Enterprize Associates (NEA).

    According to the OIDA, the market for 'green' photonic devices and components will exceed $100 billion by 2010. “Today's photonic industry will be critical in the quest to increase energy efficiency, while leaving a smaller carbon footprint, and promoting economic growth,” explained David Huff from the OIDA.

    Huff says that the two photonic technologies that are most likely to have a significant impact in the immediate future are photovoltaics for solar energy generation and LED solid-state lighting. The organizers of OPTOmism say that lighting accounts for 22% of electricity demand in the USA, and the use of LEDs could reduce this by a factor of five. If one quarter of conventional incandescent light bulbs in use today could be changed to high-efficiency LEDs, carbon emissions could be cut by 258 million tonnes. The future for photovoltaics is also one of dramatic growth. Analysts at McKinsey predict that by 2020 the capacity of solar energy units installed globally could be 40 times the level today.

    Although solar energy and lighting are perhaps the most obvious ways in which photonics can help, there are others besides. For example, Huff says that efficient optical communications will also be important. “Data centres are projected to consume 4% of the US grid power by 2010 and are the fastest growing segment of energy use, so communications/IT [information technology] will also be a critical field for green development,” he commented. Indeed, photonic platforms, such as silicon photonics, all-optical switching and all-optical routers, promise to bring significant efficiency benefits in data transmission and manipulation, and are now being actively investigated in labs around the world.

    Two other areas where photonics can help are display technology and optical sensing. Today, displays have become ubiquitous throughout society, and a move towards more technologies that do not require a backlight and are power efficient, such as electronic paper and organic displays, may also prove to be important and are developing rapidly. Lastly, the use of optical sensors to optimize the performance and running of equipment and factories may also be important. For example, fibre-optic sensors can be used in wind turbines to help monitor their performance, or aid exploration of oil and gas reservoirs, and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy can help sort materials for recycling.

    Indeed, it looks almost certain that a new green world will also be one that shines brightly with photonics technology.

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    A green revolution. Nature Photon 2, 703 (2008) doi:10.1038/nphoton.2008.232

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