Photonics – What it Means and its Applications

We know that most of our data pass around the Internet in the form of electronic signals that get pushed through many layers of Internet protocol stacks, which convert these pulses into Instagram posts, Spotify tracks, and Wikipedia pages on our screens. In basic physics lessons, we were taught that light travels faster than sound. In fact, it is the fastest thing in the universe.

This puts forth an interesting prospect.

Can we replace the electronic impulses in our communication networks with photons?
Is it possible for us to share videos using…light?

Here are some answers.

We’ll at these topics today…

  • So what exactly is photonics?
  • The applications of photonics
  • Can photonics change the world?

So what exactly is photonics?

We currently have fiber optic channels that provide great connectivity across thousands of miles. With the advent of fiber optic channels, we have seen the growth of high-speed internet and connectivity that does not require frequent amplification to keep the signals steady! But is fiber optic communication the only application of photonics?

No, it’s not.

Photonics can be a part of just about anything, as long as the hardware supports it. So, researchers have been working on developing processors and integrated circuits that support the use of photons instead of electrons! But what exactly is photonics?

Photonics deals with the study of light and the science behind generating and manipulating photons, which are particles of light. Light is the fastest thing in the universe (although when we look at the night sky, we are looking at millions of years in the past), and using it to deliver messages might just have been our most impressive idea ever! With quantum computing and quantum technology expected to play vital roles in the near future, the application of photonics for data transmission and for processing purposes means that we are set to see exciting things. Along with designing and developing superconductors, and ion traps, silicon photonic circuitries are also being very extensively explored and integrated quantum photonics might just be the answer we were looking for when it comes to building efficient quantum computers.

“The photonics industry is one of the UK’s hidden gems – it’s worth more than £14 billion a year and employs about 200,000 people, which makes it comparable in scale to the aviation industry”.This statement by Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy goes to show that photonics is a field that has been gaining traction steadily over the years and is showing a lot of potential as a great career opportunity these days. With the average remuneration of someone working in the field of photonics hovering around $64,000, it is a very safe bet when it comes to making a career out of it.

Photonics is related to many fields across physics and computer science. A couple of popular fields that are related to photonics are optomechanics and optoacoustics.

  • Optomechanics – It is possible to control mechanical vibrations using light. This study is known as optomechanics. In optomechanics, laser light is used to interact with mechanical systems to switch between quantum states or to achieve quantum limits.
  • OptoacousticsOptoacoustics or photoacoustics is the field that combines optics and acoustics for a variety of applications. Optoacoustics is being used extensively in medical imaging to generate images of biological tissues. Laser pulses are directed at tissues and these pulses get converted into wideband ultrasonic emissions that are detectable by transducers.

The other related fields of photonics include plasmonics, polaritonics, and optomics.

The applications of photonics

With more and more research being carried out in the field of photonics, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that the field will take over quite a number of applications across various areas of study. What is photonics used for? Some of the popular or emerging applications of photonics are listed below.

  • AI-powered nanophotonics

Nanophotonics is a field of study that is part of nanotechnology where the behaviour of light is studied on a nanometer scale. Nanophotonics also studies the behaviour of nanometer-scale objects as they interact with light. Nanophotonic solar cells, microscopy, spectroscopy, and cancer treatment are some of the examples of nanophotonics. With the amalgamation of nanophotonics and artificial intelligence, it is possible for AI-based models to learn from datasets and be trained faster.

  • Augmented reality

The AR/VR devices of today are clunky and are not really appealing to those who are looking to make use of the technology to build immersive and interactive environments. With photonics, it is possible to control light and to create photorealistic images that are sharper and are visually aesthetic. The device that enables this in AR/VR technology is known as Photonic Integrated Circuits (PICs) and these are so thin that they can easily be mounted on headsets or glasses.

  • Communications

Optic fiber communication is something that we are slowly getting accustomed to. It is a faster way of communication where optic fiber cables are used to transmit data. Data packets are sent across in the form of infrared light and have very minimal rates of interference and packet drops due to attenuation.  They do not come cheap though and as copper-wire-based communication networks are already in place, it is quite the task to replace them with fiber-optic channels.

  • Sensing, displays, and imaging

Sensors in consumer electronics and in various other applications can be optimized with the use of photonics. Using photonics, it is possible to build sensors that can work for larger areas while being compact and energy-efficient. Optical sensors convert light into electronic signals and can measure light, temperature, velocity, vibrations, and create electricity. Printers, scanners, barcode scanners, and other equipment that produce inputs and outputs have been greatly benefitted due to the use of light for their operations. Billboards that make use of photonics may be capable of generating or recreating high-quality, lifelike images with great resolution.

  • Photonic computing

With the development of hardware that can use light instead of electronic signals, it is possible to improve the design and development of computers. Through the use of light for communication, it is possible to build efficient systems that are capable of processing large amounts of data in very short periods of time. However, the ability to process the data carried by light-based components is dependent on the ability of the hardware to actually make use of the data efficiently.

  • High-quality manufacturing

With the precision of lasers, it is possible to manufacture products that are of greater quality than ones that are manufactured using traditional methods. It also allows for greater flexibility and customization capabilities when it comes to product design and manufacture. Clean-energy, efficiency and high-quality products are the results of implementing photonics in manufacturing.

  • LiDAR

Light detection and ranging is a technique used to measure distances by targeting an object with lasers. The time taken to hit an object and return to the source is used to calculate the distance. It can be used in generating high-resolution maps, seismology, and geology, among others.

It seems that we have come full circle. From having created complex machinery that works on various principles to building devices that make use of one of the most fundamental phenomena in the universe, our technological advancements can probably be seen as a gigantic jigsaw puzzle coming together one piece at a time.

Can photonics change the world?

It sure can change the way we communicate. With light-powered devices requiring a fraction of the energy used by conventional devices, faster processing speeds, low-cost of implementation and integration, optimal displays with precision outputs from controlling the flow of light, and high-quality output, the field of photonics will definitely be light-years (no pun intended) ahead of other technologies that we currently use. If one were interested in a career that brings together physics, electronics, and computer science together, photonics must definitely be on their list. Check out this space for more information on where to study photonics from and on the best programs on photonics and optics around the world.

Read more also about Top Technology Trends and Universities in 2022.

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