Friday, December 16, 2011

Is the U.S. wired Internet infrastructure weak? Revisited.

Tom Hausken
Optical Networking Research
Strategies Unlimited
It's time to weigh in on a pet peeve of mine. The topic is the state of high-speed Internet in the U.S., in a December 4 essay in the New York Times. My peeve is that once again the U.S. wireline infrastructure is portrayed as somehow way behind, whereas a reasonable analysis presents a very different picture. For a large country, the U.S. actually has a very strong and affordable infrastructure.

The author has a point. There is a digital divide in the U.S. and in the world. It's increasingly important to treat broadband access as a necessary service for all citizens. National averages overlook that large groups of people are left out.

The problem is how the point gets twisted along the way. The way the author explains it is like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I've complained in this blog before (here and here) and I can't let this one go too.

For example, the U.S. is portrayed as 12th in the OECD economies. That's per capita. Iceland is number 5. It has 110,000 people. You get the idea. The OECD aggregates across the whole U.S., while smaller countries will almost certainly show up in the wings of the distribution. We should compare tiny Iceland with, say, a successful regional provider in the U.S., not the entire U.S. In fact, larger countries like Germany and France are passing us up. That is important. Let's say it.

The author points out that even Portugal and Russia are upgrading to optical fiber. That's because their infrastructures were so bad in the first place. The U.S. is rewiring with fiber, but it's a big country, DSL is working pretty well, and someone has to pay for upgrading to fiber. A too-rapid deployment would recreate something on the scale of the Telecom Bubble of the late 1990s. We know how that turned out.

Broadband is also portrayed as a monopoly, yet residential users can choose from the wireline provider, cable provider, and even wireless providers. Competition is good, but we've come a long way.

The author says the providers should sell access to their networks to competitors, to reduce prices. But the problem is that everyone wants the high-end customers. There's a reason that underserved neighborhoods are underserved. There's less profit there.

Having worked in telecom policy in Washington, it is an ongoing process to improve broadband access to underserved groups. It's messy, because there is the FCC and Congress, 50 state regulators, municipal governments, and the courts. And it's "inside baseball"; pretty boring stuff if you're not a lawyer.

The author is right, we should be striving for broader broadband access.I guess it's just something about how she said it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The top 10 laser suppliers: some tight races, but a good year for all

Tom Hausken
Optical Networking Research
Strategies Unlimited
Now that 2011 is coming to a close we can estimate who are the leading laser suppliers for the year. Once again it looks like Trumpf and Coherent are neck and neck for Number 1, with over $800 million each. Rofin and Cymer are in a close race for 3rd and 4th places, with nearly $600 million each. IPG will roll in 5th, but this year with over $450 million in fiber laser sales. IPG's 2011 revenues would have put it at #1 as recently as 2009.

These players are familiar names. Cymer dropped out of the short list in the recession, but is back again. The order changes depending on the exposure of companies to different sectors. Trumpf and Rofin are highly exposed to heavy manufacturing, while Coherent is more diversified. Cymer is basically a one-product company.

I can't really know how the year will end up, of course. But three quarters are finished, and so far it looks like the fourth quarter is behaving as expected. Only the floods in Thailand have created surprises, but that's confined to telecom components, hard drive manufacturers, and the like.

I also can't really know what Trumpf is up to. And a lot of revenues for a company like Rofin-Sinar are really system sales, revenues that would not be counted if it were a company like Trumpf or Newport.

And then there are the telecom transceiver manufacturers. Finisar, JDS Uniphase, Oclaro, and others are all very strong in that segment, and Finisar is closing in on $800 million itself. With the companies above, and a couple others, that rounds out a list of the top 10.

It's also interesting that the Top 10 make up over 50% of all laser sales worldwide.

But I don't want to give too much away. There will be more on 2011 and 2012 at January's Laser Focus World Marketplace Seminar and our upcoming market report.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Solar farms: the newest crop in the desert southwest

Gail Overton
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

In the dusty little corner of the planet--the lower Mojave desert--that I call home, it's time to start raiding the just-picked lettuce and broccoli fields for the abundant leftovers. Broccoli soup, wilted lettuce, and wedge salads will be commonplace at my house for the next few months; after all, I live just next door to Yuma, AZ, the winter lettuce capital of the world. But sprouting from the ground with concrete footers and rows of metal posts rather than green shoots are fields of silicon, steel, and glass structures that are harnessing the sunlight to power our homes rather than fill our stomachs. The latest crop in the desert southwest today is not a vegetable.

Utility scale solar photovoltaic and concentrating solar power (CSP) installations in southern California and Arizona are the latest cash crop. The small town of Gila Bend, AZ is home to three separate solar farms, most located/to be located on former agricultural fields to fast-track environmental assessments (tortoises must be moved!).

One of the largest solar fields in Gila Bend is the 280 MW Solana Solar Project, which is using CSP technology from Abengoa Solar (Sevilla, Spain). The image above, courtesy Gunther Portfolio, shows the support structures being "planted" for Abengoa's proprietary parabolic trough technology. Parabolic mirrors focus the sun on a heat transfer fluid that can reach 735 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot fluid transfers its energy to water to create steam that runs conventional steam turbines. Large "thermos-like" buildings containing the molten salt hat transfer fluid are located next to the steam boilers. At select times, instead of immediately creating steam, the heat transfer fluid will heat the molten salt. Electricity can be created immediately, or from heat energy that was created up to six hours earlier--a real benefit when the sun is not shining. The YouTube "marketing" video below gives a decent overview of the Solana Solar Project:

Another solar field in California that will also use Abengoa Solar equipment is the 280 MW Mojave Solar Project--currently underway thanks to a $1.2 billion dollar loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy, which comprises the bulk of the overall $1.6 billion total investment for the San Bernardino County installation. Yes, a government loan guarantee is resulting in actual hardware and actual energy generation; it’s a shame that the Solyndra scandal is getting all the headlines.

In addition to CSP-based solar farms, photovoltaic (PV) panels from First Solar (Tempe, AZ) will comprise the 550 MW Desert Sunlight Project near Desert Center, CA (operational by Q1 2015) and the 290 MW Agua Caliente Solar Project near Dateland, CA. First Solar continues to be one of the most profitable thin-film PV manufacturers, with its cadmium telluride (CdTe) recipe competing against conventional crystalline silicon PV modules. Another alternative is solar thermal power, which will be implemented in the 392 MW Ivanpah project by BrightSource (Oakland, CA).

Sadly, solar energy still accounts for less than 1% of all the energy sources used worldwide today. But rather than dwelling on this fact, I'd rather remain optimistic that renewable energy will be the savior of our planet. Scientists are improving the optical-to-electrical energy conversion efficiency parameters daily, and solar energy is available TODAY unlike some other yet-to-be-proven energy methods such as laser fission/fusion via the National Ignition Facility. As huge swaths of arid desert land lay fallow due to lack of water and cheaper produce from Mexico and South America, why not plant a solar farm instead?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Uh oh, that fly has a wafer-scale camera

..John Wallace
..Senior Editor
..Laser Focus World

Predictions for the future of humanity range from an expansion of the human race throughout the universe to a quick self-extinction based on nuclear war or biological agents. On a just slightly less-grand scale, some prognosticators say that within a few decades we will have melded with machines, our thoughts and memories flowing throughout electronic or quantum-optical circuits. (Others would say to this, "Bah.")

But what is next, really? I'll just make one prediction: the rise of lethal nano unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Here, "nano" means the size of insects. Hummingbird-sized UAVs have been around for a few years, as have those the size of dragonflies.1,2 Real insects are also being turned into flying "cyborgs" for various purposes.3,4 There is now even a technical journal devoted to the topic: the International Journal of Micro Air Vehicles.5

Larger UAVs, of course, some quite lethal, are already in operation. But the smaller ones have been described mainly as sensing devices, often for surveillance. The ideal, which I believe will be achieved within a few years, is to shrink them from the size of a dragonfly to something much smaller -- say, that of a housefly or mosquito.

For example
But a mosquito does more than sense its surroundings; it also can deliver an itch-causing toxin to a human or animal. Perhaps all a nano UAV would need is a needle and some toxin to take out a target. Or a fly-sized surveillance nano UAV could work in concert with a larger, more lethal nano UAV. All this would hinge upon getting enough power to the UAV (such as in Ref. 4), and creating optical sensors small and light enough to be carried along. Wafer-scale cameras fit the bill nicely.

Through-silicon-via technology enables
low-cost CMOS cameras smaller than a
match head. (Image: Awaiba GmbH)

I'm just making a guess (meaning I have no insider info!). Is my prediction an obvious one ("Anyone coulda guessed that")? A lunatic one (“Here’s a tinfoil hat for you, young fella”)? I don’t know, but I’d love to hear from Laser Focus World readers about their own ideas for what strange photonics-enabled devices might be appearing in our future.







Monday, November 14, 2011

Lasers can make brown eyes blue--but should they?

Gail Overton
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

The daily news posting at entitled "Laser turns brown eyes blue" generated much discussion on LinkedIn. The comments weren't centered around how 'cool' or 'neat' the concept was, but instead focused on the technology details and the philosophical aspects of the procedure. After all, the LinkedIn audience to whom we share our Laser Focus World postings is not your average non-technical crowd; these are photonics industry professionals who are clearly concerned about how something works and what impact it has on society as a whole.

Turning brown eyes to blue may seem magical to a non-laser audience, but it is merely an extension of laser aesthetics--a topic profiled in our Photonics Applied feature series for November called "Looking good with lasers." Laser hair removal works on the principle of targeting melanin in the hair shaft and through laser heat, destroying the melanin and the hair follicle. Laser aesthetics also includes wrinkle removal, liposuction, and tattoo and lesion removal--different wavelengths of light attack different colored pigments in the tattoo or lesion, and it really works!

But even though lasers can turn brown eyes blue by targeting melanin, should they? One LinkedIn respondent said that they wished scientific research could be channeled into curing unsolved medical problems that we suffer rather than in trying to alter one's appearance for cosmetic reasons. I wholeheartedly agree; however, my sentiments will not change the fact that as long as people have "disposable incomes", money will be spent on luxuries. I was amazed to learn while researching the laser aesthetics article that teeth whitening is a $5.5 billion dollar global market, while the entire laser market is around $7 billion. Maybe we're all in the wrong business!

Still other LinkedIn comments focused on the technology. "Mankind has always sought to change his/her appearance--hair color, skin, and eyes," said Gennady Medvedkin. "Tomorrow we may witness artificial eyes made from silicon."

Medvedkin says that image sensors are really artificial eyes with great spatial resolution and color-sensing capabilities that can even exceed the capabilities of human vision. Thin silicon plates the size of the pupil could be implanted within the human body, completely replacing the eye, and recent computer algorithms allow extensions of the dynamic range in sensors up to 140 dB that are comparable to the human eye. Medvedkin says that the eye must adapt to very low light intensities for minutes and sometimes hours, whereas CMOS image sensors operate in the millisecond to second time range at low voltage with great success.

Personally, I'll keep my green eyes green and will be glad when this story fades from my memory; I'm getting tired of humming the "Don't it make my brown eyes blue" song from Crystal Gayle!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Metamaterials and media hype

..John Wallace
..Senior Editor
..Laser Focus World

Optical metamaterials are truly revolutionary: their properties (for example, a printable negative-index material) are like no other, and their nanoscale structure can be varied as a function of position to create unusual devices -- such as "cloaks." The idea is that the electromagnetic properties within the cloak create a coordinate-transformed space that can divide and channel light around an object and recombine it to form a seemingly undisturbed wavefront. Great idea, and extremely difficult to achieve, especially for objects larger than a few wavelengths in size.

It's also extremely difficult to write about, especially by the general press -- which incessantly mangles the topic by prattling on about Harry Potter invisibility cloaks, making readers or viewers think that Harry Potter-style magic is just around the corner.

Just one of many examples:

By the way, in the above example, the "invisibility cloak" is not a metamaterial cloaking device at all. It's simply a switchable photothermal mirror. (Note to the general press: my bathroom mirror is not an invisibility cloak, either.)

So where does the uninformed reader, who is even less informed after reading pop-sci Potter-material articles, expect the first consumer-grade invisibility cloak to appear?

Hammacher-Schlemmer -- where it is simply called "The Invisibility Cloak."

The Apple Store -- where it comes in the form of an iPhone skin.

A toolbar for your browser -- without the feature, the toolbar is gray; with it, the toolbar is gray.

Military surplus -- yeah, we all know the feds developed this years ago and are walking among us even as we speak.

Laser Focus World -- actually, no, you won't find it here. Sorry.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Look who’s 50 in 2011: Nonlinear optics and Spectra-Physics

Gail Overton
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

Ah, who can forget the 2010 50th anniversary celebration of the laser? Our normally docile and academic-minded photonics industry was jumping in 2010, with jubilant celebrations of Lasers in the City of Lights, a special Laser Focus World Photonic Frontiers issue celebrating 50 Years of Lasers, and even an awesome "LasersRock!" festival at CLEO 2010.

Everyone loves a celebration, and I must say I was sad to see the laser anniversary end. Fortunately, many photonics inventions and companies sprang from the invention of the laser, and 2011 continues the celebration with a number of memorable 50-year anniversaries:

50 years of nonlinear optics

At the 2011 Stanford Photonics Research Center (SPRC) Annual Symposium, attendees were treated to several special sessions highlighting 50 years of nonlinear optics. Nonlinear optics veterans Chris Ebbers and Bob Byer gave a historical perspective on the National Ignition Facility and Stanford's demonstration of the first tunable CW parametric laser via optical parametric oscillation (OPO), respectively.

50 years of Spectra-Physics

While it is not extraordinary for a technology to see a 50th anniversary, it is a much rarer event for a photonics company to see such a milestone. But just this year, Spectra-Physics, now a Newport Corporation Brand, turned 50! And on the evening of September 8th, 2011, about 180 people gathered in Mountain View, CA to celebrate the golden anniversary of the first commercial laser company. Spectra-Physics was founded by five former Varian employees and incorporated on September 8, 1961--exactly 50 years earlier.

IMAGE: The Spectra-Physics 50th Anniversary celebration drew attendees from across the laser industry and beyond. (Courtesy Newport Spectra-Physics)

All three surviving founders, Arnold Bloom, Herbert Dwight and Kenneth Ruddock were in attendance at the event.

IMAGE: Herb Dwight (left) and Ken Ruddock (right), two of the founders of Spectra-Physics, celebrate its 50th anniversary. (Courtesy Newport Spectra-Physics)

The large crowd, consisting, mostly of former employees, included 6 of the first 13, as well as many former executives and division managers of the firm. The founders and guests shared vintage photos, stories from the birth of the laser industry, and had a great evening all around. The celebration was held not far from the block in Mountain View where Spectra-Physics laser operations were centered, producing a stream of laser industry “firsts” for about 48 years.

IMAGE: Attendees sign a 50-year timeline documenting their arrival at Spectra-Physics. (Courtesy Newport Spectra-Physics)

And in 2012: 50 years of diode lasers

But wait, the celebration continues into 2012, which is the official 50th anniversary of the diode laser--those little solid-state beacons of light that have found their way into our lives in countless ways.

At the 2012 Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar, held during Photonics West 2012 on Monday, January 23rd (and in my shameless plug, the ONLY event anywhere in the world that focuses on the entire laser marketplace), David Welch, executive VP and chief strategy officer of Infinera, will present "Celebrating 50 Years of Laser Diodes." Believe it or not, lasing in semiconductor diodes was first observed in 1962--two short years after the first demonstration of the laser. Join Welch at the seminar as he talks about the evolution of the diode laser business, and help Laser Focus World celebrate the numerous opportunities that the diode laser has brought to all of us in the photonics community.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ball camera takes spherical panoramas

John Wallace
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

The commoditization of high-tech builds on itself. For example, CMOS imagers are used in digital cameras, become cheaper to manufacture, and are used in cell phones and toys. In the process they become even lower in cost, smaller, sturdier, and easier to use.

In one example that will likely continue this trend, Jonas Pfeil, who recently graduated from the Technical University of Berlin, took 36 of these imagers and created a portable, rugged camera that takes a spherical panoramic shot of its surroundings. To use it, you just toss the ball-shaped imager into the air: its internal accelerometer (another commoditized device) and some integration software predict the ball’s highest point and snap simultaneous pictures from all its CMOS imagers. The info is then downloaded via USB and viewed in custom-written spherical-panoramic viewer software.

(Image: Jonas Pfeil,

The project was Pfeil's diploma thesis. He and his colleagues at TU Berlin will be presenting the camera as the Emerging Technologies demonstration 'Throwable Panoramic Ball Camera' at SIGGRAPH Asia 2011 (Hong Kong; Dec. 12 to 15).

The 2-megapixel cell-phone-camera modules are held in a structure fabricated by a 3D printer, which also holds a layer of foam padding. When thrown, the device can capture scenes with many moving objects without ghosting. The inventors are currently looking for an investor or a partner to build the camera.

I can see many potential uses for this ball camera. A tourist gets a panorama of the Grand Canyon. A tweener gets a shot of all her partying BFFs at once, even the ones sneaking vodka. An undersea scientist gets accurate counts of fish and other sea life. A CIA agent gets that essential bit of info from outside a second-story window. And (with video rather than still images), an IMAX theaterful of viewers gets motion sickness.

To see the full-sized panorama, go to: (Image: Jonas Pfeil,

Friday, October 14, 2011

Smartphones become photonics hardware

John Wallace
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

As Laser Focus World readers know, the use of the iPhone in photonics is growing. Examples include the iPhone as a source of info (geometrical optics guide; colorimetry color and measurement values) and the iPhone as a hardware/software photonics system (holographic microscope; 3D image capture). Earlier this month I posted a news story to the Laser Focus World home page on another example of the iPhone as photonics system: a microscope using a ball lens and the iPhone's camera to image blood cells.

I personally have an Android phone instead of an iPhone. Since Android is actually more popular than iOS for phones, I've been waiting for more Android photonics apps and such to appear (there are some already, such as a fluorochrome search app from Chroma Technology).

Yesterday, John Canning of the University of Sydney let me know that the use of Android devices as photonics hardware is advancing, as illustrated by an experiment in which he and his colleagues use an Android smartphone (the HTC Desire) as the light source for a fluorescence-microscope setup.1 The blue light is from the phone's OLED screen, and a freely downloadable color-flashlight app from the Android market is the spectral control.

Specimen under Android phone illumination:
(a) white light (RGB); (b) blue; and (c) excited
by blue and filtered to pass only fluorescence.
(Images: University of Sydney)

The specimen is placed on a slide directly atop the OLED screen; the blue emission, which peaks at 445 nm, excites the fluorone dye Rhodamine 123 inside a silica mesostructure sphere. A green filter passes only the resulting fluorescence to the microscope optics. The researchers believe that a custom app would raise the signal intensity and allow rapid modulation for fluorescence-decay measurements. In addition, modifying the setup to use the phone's own camera will further simplify the device raising its potential for use in remote areas.

The authors point out that a big advantage of Android is its open access, which allows total software control, making it straightforward to integrate the phone with other hardware.


1. John Canning et al., Sensors, 11, p. 7055, 6 July 2011; doi:10.3390/s110707055.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

FiO 2011 not-to-be-missed highlights

  Gail Overton
  Senior Editor
  Laser Focus World
If you're able to attend the 2011 Frontiers in Optics conference (FiO 2011; OSA's 95th Annual Meeting that also includes the Laser Science XXVII conference--there are several special events and significant research papers that should not be missed. To be held next week from October 16-20 in San Jose, CA, the annual conference focuses on the timeliest research and development topics in optical science and engineering, with eight conference tracks, FiO 1 through FiO 8, on Optical Design and Instrumentation, Optical Sciences, Optics in Biology and Medicine, Optics in Information Science, Fiber Optics and Optical Communications, Integrated Photonics, Quantum Electronics, and Vision and Color, respectively.

To find out what's hot in each of the eight conference tracks, the Sunday night (4-6 pm in the Fairmont Regency Ballroom) "What's Hot in Optics Today" special event is a good place to start. Here, the Division chairs of OSA's technical groups will present overviews of recent developments in various subfields of optics in an informative and accessible manner. And hopefully you'll attend the Sunday evening welcome reception that immediately follows from 6-7:30 pm in the Sainte Claire Hotel Ballroom.

Beginning Monday, October 17 at 4:45 pm in paper FMI3, Cornell researchers present "Demonstration of Temporal Cloaking," showing for the first time how an event in the time domain can be cloaked using time-space duality concepts and novel split time-lenses.

On Wednesday, October 19 at 11:45 am, don't miss paper FLW4 entitled "Controlled Synthesis of Gold Nanorods and Application to Brain Tumor Delineation" in which a Duke University research team explains how they are using gold nanorods for tumor delineation due to their unique optical properties and biocompatibility; the nanorods effectively label tumors within brain slices.

And just after that during Wednesday's poster session from 12-1:30 pm, a team from UC Davis presents poster JWA8, "Microscopy and Spectroscopy on a Cell Phone." Laser Focus World has been covering cell-phone-based photonics for a while now, but the applications (no pun intended; is there an app for that?) continue to grow.

IMAGE: From left to right, blood-cell images showing normal, iron deficiency anemia, and sickle cell anemia types of blood are compared when using a traditional microscope (upper) and the iPhone microscope (lower). The iPhone details are clearly adequate enough to distinguish between the three blood samples. (Courtesy UC Davis)
And although this video is a few years old, Aydogan Ozcan from UCLA explains in simple terms the benefit of cell-phone microscopy:

There is also another good video from UC Berkeley on their CellScope at

Moving right along (it's easy to get caught up in this "smart" phone world) … don't miss the Wednesday afternoon presentation at 4 pm (paper FWW1) entitled "Bio-Inspired Photonic Nanostructures and Lasers" to see how Yale University physicists are creating biomimetic-based photonic nanostructures that confine light, leading to efficient lasing that is tuned via structural parameters.

In addition to the Monday morning (8-noon) Plenary session in the Fairmont Regency Ballroom, the exhibit hall will be open on Tuesday, October 18 from 10-4 pm, and Wednesday, October 19 from 10-2 pm. So far, a total of 80 exhibitors will be available to actually show how ground-breaking research is being translated into helpful research tools and useful, everyday products.

Laser Focus World chief editor Conard Holton and I will be attending the show off and on from Sunday through Thursday; please email me at if you have some interesting FiO-related research or product development news to share with us either before, during, or after the conference. See you there!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The science and art of optical contacting

  John Wallace
  Senior Editor
  Laser Focus World
First, the science (I'll go through this quickly, because I want to get to the art). Optical contacting is a method of adhering two pieces of polished glass together without using cement. It takes advantage of very short-range molecular attraction; as a result, the two cleaned surfaces have to have exactly the same shape down to a couple of nanometers. Usually, both surfaces are flat, but can in certain instances be convex/concave. Because the surfaces are in contact, their glass/air interfaces essentially disappear and there is no Fresnel reflection whatsoever. Optical contacting is an excellent way of assembling certain ultraprecise optical components and systems, and has other uses in the optical shop as well.

Back when I was an optical engineer, I worked with some very talented optical technicians who made this technique seem easy. Then for fun I tried it -- and could never get it right. I saw splotches of rainbow colors, which were interference fringes where the surfaces did not bond; I saw little circular reflective areas where some specks of dust remained, preventing the contacting from happening. NASA should be very happy that I'm not on their team.

Art that needs excellent scratch/dig specs
Now, on to the art. I recently visited LightMachinery (Nepean, Ontario), which, along with excimer and CO2 lasers, makes precision optics. As I was leaving, Vaz, one of the company's optical technicians, handed me a document, which I looked at later in the day. As it turns out, Vaz Zastera is an expert at optical contacting, not only for LightMachinery but for his own art too.

For his optically contacted art, he works in collaboration with another artist named Jiri Harcuba. Jiri will do an engraving on an ultraflat piece of glass that Vaz has made; Vaz then optically contacts the piece to another flat, creating a larger glass object within which the engraving floats. Vaz also creates optically contacted art pieces that are unengraved.

Optically contacted three-layer sandwich; engravings in each layer inside by Jiri Harcuba. Cold work by Vaz. (Courtesy of Vaz Zastera)

Optical contacting technique was used to assemble "Dove." Eight dove prisms are optically contacted to a big right-angle prism. (Courtesy of Vaz Zastera)

And now for some science: This is an optical assembly for a first-of-its-kind instrument for Boston University and NASA. It is called a Monolithic Achromatic Nulling Interference Coronagraph (MANIC). It will be used in a telescope system to block (null) out suns when observing exoplanets (planets orbiting a star other than our Sun). It is all optically contacted. (Courtesy of Vaz Zastera)

By the way, Vaz's site says, "Optical contacting can be easily learned with practice." Hah. Maybe if you’re not a fumblefingers like me.

For more on Vaz's art, see:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

NASA technology enters new frontiers

  Gail Overton
  Senior Editor
  Laser Focus World

Back in early August, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA; Washington, DC) announced its "Can you see it now?" campaign in which the Innovative Partnerships Program Office (IPPO) at NASA decided to license the wavefront sensing and adaptive optics technologies, procedures, and lab equipment from the James Webb Space Telescope program to private industry.

But in addition to those wavefront sensing and adaptive optics technologies, the IPPO office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC; Greenbelt, MD) is also licensing their hierarchical image segmentation (HSEG) algorithm. This HSEG technique--originally developed for Earth science image enhancement and analysis more than a decade ago--is entering a new frontier in the medical imaging market as a powerful diagnostic tool, thanks to the licensing program.

NASA Goddard says that when Dr. James Tilton started development of his HSEG algorithm, he gave little thought to its possible medical applications. However, a workshop sponsored by Goddard’s IPPO brought HSEG to the attention of an entrepreneur in the medical imaging market and helped launch a product with the potential of saving a significant number of lives.

The HSEG algorithm closely intertwines image segmentation via region growing, which finds spatially connected region objects with region object classification and then groups those sets of region objects together into region classes. This feature of HSEG provides the potential of using spatial pattern recognition to recognize land use categories. As an example, consider a portion of a satellite image depicting the Patterson Park area of Baltimore, MD:

IMAGE: In one example, the hierarchical image segmentation (HSEG) algorithm uses spatial pattern recognition to recognize land use categories. (Courtesy NASA Goddard)

The HSEG analysis of this image shows a certain regularity of the roof pattern to the southeast, east, and north of Patterson Park indicative of an older residential area. The roof pattern to the southwest and west of Patterson Park has a denser concentration of businesses and apartment complexes. Pixel-based analysis could never detect this difference in spatial patterning.

So how did the life-saving medical application come about? About ten years ago, the GSFC IPPO hosted a workshop to showcase its technologies for the business community. In attendance, Fitz Walker, president and CEO of a small company called Bartron Medical Imaging (Largo, MD), saw immediate potential for HSEG as a diagnostic tool that could be adapted to enhance medical imagery, allowing for quicker and more accurate identification of problematic tissues such as cancer. Bartron licensed the technology from Goddard, which is now FDA-approved as MED-SEG, a tool that helps clinical professionals interpret medical images.

IMAGE: An original mammogram is shown before MED-SEG processing (left), and after MED-SEG processing (right), indicating a region of interest in white. (Courtesy Bartron Medical Imaging)

The Bartron website says that MED-SEG provides improved diagnoses for a wide range of medical images, including CT and PET scans, MRI, ultrasound, X-ray, digitized mammography, soft tissue analysis, and moving object analysis including microscopy and endoscopic examinations. Physicians and health care practitioners can take any unmanipulated medical image and segment it to ‘see’ features in the image that were not previously visible to the naked eye, isolating one particular area of interest in an image to compare it with many other reference images databased at other health care facilities, for instance. Bartron says the MED-SEG system brings out properties not seen with the naked eye or with current imaging enhancement systems.

NASA Goddard wants to remind the photonics community that it continues to develop HSEG for licensing opportunities in markets as diverse as facial recognition, image data mining, and crop monitoring. If you have a new frontier in mind for such a technology, please contact the GSFC IPPO at Who knows, space may not be the “final frontier” after all!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

LME--laser makers meet industrial customers

  Conard Holton
  Associate Publisher, Editor in Chief
  Laser Focus World
The new Lasers for Manufacturing Event, organized by the Laser Institute of America (LIA) and held September 27-28 in Schaumburg, IL, exceeded expectations and promises to offer a new forum for laser manufacturers, integrators, researchers, consultants, and industrial users. The show, held in the Renaissance Convention Center Hotel, drew 67 exhibitors and over 800 attendees, exceeding the expectations of the organizer.

Peter Baker, executive director of the LIA, said the goal had been distilling what might be found at numerous other large North American trade shows where a laser exhibitor might see only a few interested attendees out of thousands, and where attendees might have difficulty learning about industrial laser processes and finding laser companies with products of interest.

The location in Schaumburg was a bit remote, but still only 20 minutes from O’Hare airport and easily accessible to manufacturing companies in the upper Midwest. Baker said it was fulfilling the mission of the LIA, which is to foster lasers, laser applications, and laser safety—not to mention spurring economic development.

In addition to free courses on laser basics, advantages, and safety, speakers such as Todd Rockstroh from GE addressed topics such as lasers in aerospace, automotive, and biomedical device manufacturing. Bill O’Neill, director of the Centre of Industrial Photonics at Cambridge University, gave an engaging talk on the impact of laser technology on additive manufacturing, describing the waste and inefficiency of most processes and inefficiency of supply chains (see photo). His description of additive manufacturing, including laser sintering and 3D printing, opened a few eyes to the potential for consumer products, personal electronics, displays, solar power sources, and much more.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In unusual optics, don’t discount the sphere

John Wallace
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World
When it comes to simple, imaginative approaches to optical design, the spherical mirror has not been left out. Or at least that's what I found when I came across two optical systems that, while very different, share the same basic configuration.

Both are designed to collect light from astronomical objects; both can scan large portions of the sky; and both have very large, fixed primary mirrors.

Their spherical primaries are symmetric about a single, central point; this is a higher degree of symmetry than that for a paraboloidal mirror, which is merely rotationally symmetric about its optical axis. Well, obviously, one might say. And so what, one might add.

But this allows the designer to build a system with an optical axis that pivots around the sphere's center -- meaning that the enormous primary never has to move, and that the rest of the optics can have a narrow field of view and yet cover a huge portion of the sky.

In the case of the Hobby-Eberly telescope in West Texas, the optics are diffraction limited. The primary is 11 x 9.8 m in size, with the optics being able to use a 9.2-m-diameter portion of the mirror at any one time. This telescope can access three quarters of the night sky (just imagine the pointing mechanism that would be required for a more-conventional 9.2 m ground telescope that could access that much sky).

Hobby-Eberly telescope (Image: Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory)

In the case of the solar bowl, one 15-m-diameter example of which was built on the roof of a kitchen in the south-India town of Auroville, a solar collector in the form of a rod pivots about the center of the sphere. As long as the rod is pointed at the sun, all sunlight received by the sphere is collected by the bottom half of the rod. On sunny days, the Auroville solar bowl provides steam for cooking for 300 people. In another example, a 20 m bowl was built in Crosbyton, Texas in the late 1970s by Texas Technical University to power a 40 kW steam turbine.

Auroville solar bowl (Image:

OK, enough optical geekiness for now. But if anyone knows of any other optical uses of this stationary-spherical-mirror configuration, let me know. (By the way, the 1000-ft-diameter Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico also was based on this approach.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Origami and photonics fold together

Gail Overton
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

Did you know that an origami-based folding solar panel designed by Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura actually flew on a Japanese satellite in the 1980s and is the inspiration for modern solar sails and folded optics in space? It turns out that origami, the Japanese art of folding a single sheet of paper into fabulous three-dimensional designs, has come a long way in recent decades: not just in the complexity of the beautiful art structures that can be fabricated, but in the many everyday uses for origami--some of them directly applicable to the photonics industry.

IMAGE: Origami is more than just small folded planes or party favors. A mathematical equation can define how a single sheet of paper can be folded hundreds (and even thousands) of times to produce beautiful works of art, as well as scientific structures. (Courtesy

In an eye-opening and compelling presentation given at the 2011 Stanford Photonics Research Center (SPRC; Stanford, CA) 2011 SPRC Annual Symposium held last week on the campus of Stanford University (Stanford, CA), Stanford University and Caltech alumnus Robert J. Lang enlightened the crowd on how mathematics plays a role in creating seemingly impossible works of art as well as useful scientific applications in the form of origami.

Lang, who has his own origami website at, explains how "computational origami" became his passion in the design of Eyeglass, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) project to develop a folded optical mirror for a space telescope. The 5 m diameter Eyeglass prototype is a model for how a small, folded form using the concepts of origami could be unfurled once safely in space into a 100 m diameter telescope optic.

IMAGE: LLNL's 5 meter diameter prototype Eyeglass folded-optic mirror is based on computational origami principles. (Courtesy

Lang's website illustrates how origami can be explained mathematically; he even provides a free origami simulation tool that you can download online and a program called treemaker that allows you to turn a stick figure of an object into a work of art by translating that stick figure into a series of peak and valley folds on one sheet of paper. Incredibly, there are mathematical rules that define a functioning origami design.

And thinking beyond art, you might explore how that airbag in your car is folded and how heart stents can be inserted as thin solid tubes and be expanded within the body into cylindrical mesh structures that keep blood flowing freely; the origami connection may surprise you!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Does LED lighting at night have bad effects?

  John Wallace
  Senior Editor
  Laser Focus World
Scientists have been talking for many years about how artificial lighting can cause poor sleep. To that, you might say, "So shut the lights off." But the scientists are talking about the disruption of our circadian (day/night) rhythm, which would last beyond the time the bedside lamp was turned off. Here are just a couple of news snippets about the effects of burning the midnight oil.

Melatonin suppression
A team of researchers from Israel, Italy, and the U.S. are now saying that the light emitted by a white-light LED suppresses melatonin in humans at a relatively high rate. Melatonin suppression is apparently not a good thing, causing "behavior disruptions and health problems," as noted by a University of Haifa press release on the study. This is because it disrupts the circadian rhythm.

The researchers compared three types of bulbs: white LEDs, metal-halide lamps (used in car headlights and outdoor lighting), and high-pressure sodium (HPS) lamps. Melatonin suppression is caused by blue light; HPS lamps, with their orange-yellow hue, were the controls in the experiment. The results showed that metal-halide lamps suppress melatonin at a rate more than three times greater than the HPS bulbs, while white LEDs suppress melatonin at a rate more than five times higher than the HPS bulb. The study, titled "Limiting the impact of light pollution on human health, environment and stellar visibility," was recently published in the Journal of Environmental Management.

But research the easy way doesn't work
Another study, recently conducted by the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY) found that satellite images of outdoor lighting are unrelated to actual light levels reaching the eye--which challenges previous studies linking areas on satellite images of bright outdoor lighting with increased incidences of breast cancer.

"After shift work was identified as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization, some studies were published that claimed a statistical association between light at night and the incidence of breast cancer. However, these studies relied on satellite photometry and subjects' self-reports of bedroom brightness as measures of light exposure. None of these studies employed actual light measurements at the eye," said LRC Director and principal investigator Mark Rea. "Before statistical associations between light at night and disease can graduate to a cause and effect relationship, it is necessary to measure the light as a potential causal agent." This apparently can't be done from space.

"It is important to note, however, that these findings do not undermine the foundational data using animal models that link melatonin suppression by light at night and cancer risks, nor does it contradict the statistical association between shift work and breast cancer risk in humans," add d Rea.

Dark sky at night, retiree's delight
A couple of years ago, a group called the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA; Tucson, AZ) issued a statement noting that "the rapidly expanding use of bluish-white outdoor lighting threatens visibility at night and jeopardizes the nocturnal environment worldwide." The statement specifically referred to LED-based outdoor lighting.

The IDA defines blue light as any light with a wavelength shorter than 500 nm, and says that lamps emitting blue light increase glare and compromise human vision, especially in the aging eye. "Short-wavelength light also increases sky glow disproportionately," states the IDA. "In addition, blue light has a greater tendency to affect living organisms through disruption of their biological processes that rely upon natural cycles of daylight and darkness, such as the circadian rhythm."

Rayleigh scattering, which occurs much more strongly at short wavelengths, is a hindrance to astronomers. Apparently, it's the bane of old people too.

What, me worry?
I believe in safety (seat belts were kind of a nice invention, I think). But I also suspect that a cup of evening coffee has a far greater impact on sleep than whether a nearby light bulb is a warm or a cool white. I believe that the increased energy efficiency of LEDs will be of great benefit in many ways. So, please join me in giving a boost to the beleaguered LED light bulb -- switch to decaf.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Downhole photonics

  Gail Overton
  Senior Editor
  Laser Focus World

I was reading an article this week in the July 2011 issue of Physics Today on natural gas fracking called "Shale-gas extraction faces growing public and regulatory challenges." It's fascinating to me that horizontal drilling, blasting, and high-pressure fracking chemicals loosen the rock thousands of meters below ground, liberating the natural gas and forcing it to the surface. Though opinions may differ on the environmental soundness of natural gas fracking and other oil-extraction methods such as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) and tar sands conversion, one thing is certain: the thirst for energy means that ALL sources will continue to be exploited until truly "sustainable" energy generation methods are widely deployed (or until the atmosphere becomes so toxic that you can't breathe).

To minimize environmental issues and improve yields and drilling safety in fossil-fuel extraction (NOTE: I never have been a fan of the term "fossil fuel" since there is conflicting research that says perhaps the earth's crust itself generates oil--see "Laser heating shows that petroleum could have non-dinosaur origins" in Laser Focus World's May 2010 issue), I'm all for using photonics in any way possible. For a review on downhole photonics applications and the tremendous strides that have been made in sending optics into one of the hottest, dampest, harshest environments on the planet, see "Downhole sensing puts fiber optics to the test" in our April 2011 issue.

IMAGE: A fiber-optic sensor is being loaded downhole to monitor temperature and pressure. Courtesy Intelligent Fiber Optic Systems (IFOS; Santa Clara, CA)

One of the fascinating aspects of downhole petroleum sensing that I neglected to cover in my recent article is the need to monitor seismic activity in both terrestrial and especially, marine environments; oddly enough, if you read the Physics Today fracking article you'll see that fracking has even been linked to earthquakes! Our sister media company PennEnergy covered a very interesting fiber-optic geophone that improves over electronic-based technology for downhole seismic monitoring. As the number of fracking sites increases throughout the United States, I certainly would like to know if there is a fracking/earthquake link. As a California native, earthquakes are a big deal and a big concern; any help we can get from photonics and optics in learning more about them is surely appreciated!

Prize for laser innovation

Conard Holton
Associate Publisher, Editor in Chief
Laser Focus World

The Berthold Leibinger Innovation Prize honors scientists and developers who make advancements in the field of applied laser technology. The 2012 call for entries--open to the international laser community--is accepting applications until December 31, 2011. There is no restriction with regard to the field of application.

In 2012, a select jury will award prize money of 30,000 euros for first, 20,000 for second, and 10,000 for third. In addition, the Future Prize of 30,000 euros is awarded for outstanding scientific research that lays the foundation of innovation. There is no call for applications for this prize. More information and entry forms may be found on the Berthold Leibinger Foundation website.

The prize winners in 2010 were:

1. Laser Based Luminescence Imaging of Silicon Bricks, Wafers and Solar Cells--by Thorsten Trupke, at The University of New South Wales & BT Imaging and Robert Bardos, BT Imaging

2. Two winners: Clinical Multi-Photon Tomography by Karsten K├Ânig, JenLab, Germany; and UV Excimer Laser Technology--Key to Mass Production of Ceramic High Temperature Superconducting Tapes by Alexander Usoskin, Ralph Delmdahl, and Kai Schmidt at Bruker HTS and Coherent, Germany

3. Femtosecond Light Source Spanning from the Ultraviolet to Infrared by Majid Ebrahim-Zadeh, ICFO-Institute of Photonic Sciences, ICREA-Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies & Radiant Light, Spain

The Future Prize went to Federico Capasso at Harvard University, USA.

If you feel you are making a significant contribution to applied laser technology, this prize is an opportunity to see your work acknowledged.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rescuing the James Webb Space Telescope

John Wallace
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a cosmological probe every bit as revolutionary as the Hubble Space Telescope was (after its fix) -- and the JWST is in trouble. The U.S. House of Representatives has canceled the JWST program because it is over budget; this is just a first move, and as of now Congress could still decide to reinstate the program.

Without getting into details (it's been highly publicized already, so a quick Web search will provide a flood of info), the JWST is certainly over budget and behind schedule. On the other hand, most of the telescope's components have already been built and are already under test.

If completed and launched, the JWST will not only be capable of observing the universe in its early phase before the formation of the first stars; it will also have the light-collecting ability and spectral capabilities to find liquid water on exoplanets. It will be the leading-edge cosmology platform for at least the next decade after launch. It has already been the proving ground for new optical-fabrication technology, and will showcase the best in IR imaging and spectroscopy. Finally, it will be an inspiration to students in a country (the U.S.) that is beginning to lose its edge in secondary science education.

And the JWST is mostly built.

Northrop Grumman has an excellent site on the JWST ( that also includes a call to action. I suggest you pay the site a visit, or contact your elected officials directly.

Six JWST mirror segments
complete final test (NASA)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Plenaries aplenty at SPIE O + P San Diego

Gail Overton
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

With a total of 25 plenary sessions, SPIE Optics + Photonics could quite possibly be the most plenary intensive conference in the photonics industry today. Beginning with the Astronomical Optics and Instrumentation Plenary Session and the Symposium-wide Plenary session on Sunday, August 21, the plenaries offered top-notch presentations from key industry experts and technology gurus that spanned the topics of astronomy, nanophotonics, biophotonics, solar energy, optoelectronic components, OLEDs and solid-state lighting, remote sensing, and various forms of imaging.

If you weren’t fortunate enough--as I wasn’t--to attend all the plenary sessions, perhaps these short summaries of a few that I did attend will be useful:

Aug 22, 10:30-11:15 am--Lessons From Nature About Solar Light-Harvesting
Gregory Scholes, Department of Chemistry professor at the University of Toronto (Toronto, ON, Canada), discussed how plant-based photosynthesis could be applied to energy harvesting in artificial solar photovoltaic and especially, organic solar cells. Such naturally occurring light-harvesting complexes (LHCs) as microbial mats and other photosynthetic organisms--up to one million of them in a liter of seawater--can absorb more light than semiconductor nanocrystals. By studying their properties, it is hoped they can provide clues about how to increase solar-cell efficiencies or create better bio-based solar cells that could rival artificial ones. In fact, Michael Gratzel from Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne won the 2010 Millennium Technology Prize for the Dyesol photosynthetic-based solar cell shown below:

Gratzel also talks about the photosynthetic-inspired solar cell on YouTube:

Aug 22, 11:15-12:00 am--Integration of Natural Silk Fibroin to Organic Optoelectronics and Photonics
Roberto Zamboni, director of the Institute of Organic Synthesis and Photoreactivity (ISOF) of the Italian Research Council (CNR) described how the silk road had a great impact on the region of Bologna, Italy, making it one of the largest silk producers of its time. Zamboni is extending that history by creating new silk-based optoelectronic devices, including new organic light-emitting transistors (OLETs) made from silk fibers. Check out this classic image from Tufts University of a silk-based optical reader that can be electronically modified to change the display:

Aug 23, 2:35-3:05 pm--Using Invariant Physics-Based Spectral/Spatial Methods for the Analysis of Hyperspectral Images
University of California, Irvine professor Glenn Healey described a technique to improve imaging discrimination of hyperspectral scenes through math and physics. Incredibly, the invariant representation technique can take into account surface orientation, thermal environment, and atmospheric and illumination conditions; for example, using a spectral signature alone to find aluminum rooftops in a suburban scene returns tens and sometimes hundreds of false positives. However, the invariant analysis takes these various physical parameters into account and can find ONLY those aluminum roofs within a scene. Look for a news story on this in an upcoming edition of Laser Focus World.

Friday, August 26, 2011

An annual meeting plus

Conard Holton
Associate Publisher, Editor in Chief
Laser Focus World

SPIE Optics + Photonics, the society's annual meeting in San Diego (August 21-25), drew an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 5000 attendees and 239 exhibitors. The venue and weather on San Diego harbor were excellent and comments from exhibitors reflected a general confidence in the photonics industry in spite of the news from Wall Street.

Highlights of the technical sessions, including the focus on life sciences and organic photovoltaics, LEDs, and lasers, will appear in Laser Focus World magazine and online at They may be previewed in a blog by senior editor Gail Overton or on the SPIE website.

During the show, SPIE announced the 2011 election results for terms begin in January 2012:
- Eustace Dereniak was elected President. He is a professor at the College of Optical Sciences, Univ. of Arizona.
- William Arnold was elected President-Elect. Arnold is Chief Scientist and Vice President of Technology Development Center at ASML USA, Inc.
- Philip Stahl was elected Vice-President. He is the Senior Optical Physicist and James Webb Space Telescope Optical Components Lead at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
- Brian Lula was elected 2012 Secretary/Treasurer. Lula is the president and CEO of PI (Physik Instrumente).

The newly elected Society Directors, who will serve three-year terms for 2012-2014, are:
- Judy Fennelly, Air Force Research Lab (USA)
- Maryellen Giger, University of Chicago (USA)
- John Greivenkamp, University of Arizona (USA)
- Seung-Han Park, Yonsei University (South Korea)

As the show wound down, the staff of Laser Focus World again had the pleasure of sailing around San Diego harbor as part of our customer-appreciation catamaran cruise.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Nuclear fuel may get cheaper to make

John Wallace
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

In a remarkable development, General Electric has licensed a laser-enrichment technology developed by an Australian company called Silex, and has been successfully testing the technology for two years in a joint effort with Hitachi. The purpose of the research, which is being done at a plant in North Carolina co-owned by GE and Hitachi, is to more-easily enrich uranium for use in nuclear powerplants. (A story about this ran in the New York Times on August 20.)
Conventional enrichment approaches, such as the centrifuge-based enrichment that predominates today, are inefficient and must be housed in large, power-hungry facilities. In contrast, laser enrichment promises to be highly efficient and can be done at a much smaller scale.

If it becomes practical, this means two things. First, fuel for nuclear reactors can be made cheaply and in large quantities; this is GE’s and Hitachi’s objective. Second, enrichment facilities could potentially be made small enough to be hidden almost anywhere. The latter naturally leads to a frightening thought: if the technical details of the process ever leaked out, clandestine enrichment facilities could someday be built by terrorists for making nuclear weapons.
It should be noted that the Silex process can be used to enrich other elements too. Silicon, enriched to a higher concentration of one of its isotopes, is more thermally conductive; the same is true of isotopically enriched diamond. More-conductive silicon could spawn faster computers, while better diamond heat spreaders could lead to better high-power laser-diode arrays and more efficient photodetectors.

So here is yet another technology that, like so many, can be used for good or evil. Personally, I am a science nut: from that point of view, the idea of freely available and inexpensive isotopically enriched elements is a great thing, because these new materials should lead to better science and the practical benefits that ensue. I would be very happy if the uranium-enrichment predicament were a nonissue -- but it isn’t. I am wary, and (like most people, no doubt) need to be reassured that the Silex process won’t end up in the hands of the wrong people. Will that reassurance come? We’ll see.

What do you think? Please email me at