When was the last time you searched the Internet, watched television, drove a car or texted on your smartphone?
Now consider this: All of these modern-day conveniences are made possible largely because of light.
Optics and photonics are the science and application of light. Aside from the everyday applications powered by light, photonics also guides energy exploration, helps medical professionals more clearly detect cancer, keeps our servicemen and women safe on the battlefield and much more.
And, photonics should and can be a key part of growing Southern Arizona’s economy and creating the high-tech, high-wage jobs we need here.
I recently had the opportunity to visit my alma mater, the University of Arizona, and tour its College of Optical Sciences to see first-hand how photonics is enabling technology.
The UA is home to one of the best schools in the country for research in the field of optics and photonics, which both enable technology and drive Arizona’s economy.
Today, the school educates more students in optics than any institution in the United States — and its vital research program has a proven track record of spawning innovation and economic development in the state and beyond. Southern Arizona has a particular strength in precision optical components and lenses, one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry at 16 percent per year. Because of that, Arizona’s employment in this sector has more than doubled since 2000.
Other areas of strength or opportunity in Arizona include photovoltaics, optical communications and biomedical imaging and instrumentation.
A 2006 study conducted by the UA estimated that the photonics industry in Arizona employed more than 25,000 individuals and produced $2 billion in revenue, growing by a factor of 10 in the preceding decade. Unfortunately, more recent studies suggest that this number has dropped significantly across the state.
Outside Arizona, public photonics companies generate more than $3 trillion in revenue annually and employ more than 7 million people in the United States. New opportunities arising from optics and photonics offer the potential for even more jobs and money in our economy over the next few decades — including new optical capabilities that will be vital for supporting the continued growth of the Internet, high-efficiency lighting, genome mapping, medical devices and solar power.
Historically, the United States has been the world leader in deploying photonics research to power cutting-edge technologies. Yet global competition has put our leadership position at risk, causing a substantial loss of global market share to overseas competitors, as well as thousands of American jobs.
However, in 2011, Germany committed nearly $1.3 billion to photonics R&D over 10 years, China began funding several programs targeting photonics supply chains, and the European Commission, as part of its new Horizon 2020 program, has directed more than $2 billion to photonics-related R&D over the next seven years.
We have a unique opportunity in Southern Arizona to become a leader in the photonics industry.
We know what we must do — and why it is so important. In 2012, the National Research Council released a report presenting the potential advantages of optics and photonics on major sectors of the economy.
The report called for a National Photonics Initiative to:
• Raise awareness about photonics and the impact of photonics in our everyday lives.
• Increase collaboration and coordination among U.S. industry, government and academia to advance photonics-driven fields.
• Drive U.S. funding and investment in areas of photonics critical to maintaining U.S. competitiveness and national security.
Heeding that call, the NPI recently launched and released recommendations to guide funding and investment in five photonics-driven fields: advanced manufacturing, communications and information technology, defense and national security, energy, and health and medicine.
In national security, photonics makes laser-guided weapons more accurate and provides lasers for missile defense. In energy, photonics provides renewable power sources, as well as optical systems to monitor wells in the oil and gas sector.
In health and medicine, photonics is responsible for advances from laser eye surgery to CT scans. In communications and information technology, optics and photonics can continue the advances that have increased the capacity of the Internet by nearly 10,000-fold over the past two decades.
And in advanced manufacturing, substantial job growth is possible in new and innovative areas of manufacturing that make use of high-power and low-cost lasers as well as 3-D printing.
Just as our everyday lives are dependent on photonics, so are our local and national economies and the health and security of our citizens. Now is the time to make Southern Arizona a leader in photonics.
Contact information for U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, who represents Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, is on his website, http://barber.house.gov