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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

SPIE Optics + Photonics: Looking back and ahead

  Gail Overton
  Senior Editor
  Laser Focus World

Last year’s SPIE Optics + Photonics conference was particularly memorable, mostly for the awesome PennWell customer-appreciation catamaran cruise and the typically warm and breezy weather we all enjoyed.

But the subject of optics and photonics was of course the highlight of the 2010 event: our Laser Focus World videographers were able to capture the essence of a few key technology exhibitions:

(1) The One Million Lights non-profit organization has a goal to distribute one million environmentally friendly, rechargeable LED solar lights to adults and children in off-the-grid, developing regions around the world to replace toxic and expensive kerosene lanterns:

(2) Optical Research Associates is looking for partners to commercialize its head-worn display:

And now for SPIE 2011; rumor has it there will be another cruise. And don’t forget to see these papers, hand-picked by SPIE’s Amy Nelson, on the latest in photovoltaics, nanotechnology, astronomy, and yes, optics and photonics:

Manijeh Razeghi from Northwestern University is giving an update on terahertz quantum cascade lasers (paper 8119-11). At Defense, Security, and Sensing, she demonstrated a portable QCL that operates at room temperature, and this paper looks to update that work. Razeghi also chairs the conference on Carbon Nanotubes, Graphene, and Associated Devices.

There are about 20 papers on liquid-crystal lasers and photonics, including one by Scott Davis (Vescent Photonics) on LC waveguides as an emergent platform for a new class of devices (paper 8165B-51).

And with astronomy conferences at Optics + Photonics this year, the European Space Agency and NASA both are giving updates on their programs. Mustapha Zahir (European Space Research and Technology Centre) is giving a paper (8159-3) on lasers and detectors used in LIDAR systems in many ESA missions, and an overview of three of those missions.

And I’m looking forward to attending a paper from OPEL Solar on microdisk modulators and detectors for high-speed integrated WDM systems using a new integrated component within a Planar OptoElectronic Technology (POET) circuit (paper 8164-11).

Once again, it looks like the weather will be great and the technical content will be top-notch! Hope to see you there; perhaps gazing through the telescopes at the Monday night star party just following the conference reception.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Photonics and service robots

Conard Holton
Associate Publisher, Editor in Chief
Laser Focus World

In my previous role as editor in chief of Vision Systems Design, I co-authored an extensive market survey about vision in service robots. Service robots operate independently or semi-independently and do not include robots used for traditional manufacturing operations. Some of the primary photonics technologies used in service robots are structured-light systems, two-camera stereo systems, time-of-flight sensors, lidar, and single-lens camera systems.

These robots perform tasks that range from aerial surveillance, bomb disposal, autonomous driving, farming, and warehouse logistics, to teaching children and assisting the elderly. Many countries and regions have a strong policy of fostering research and development in this field. In summary, the report concluded that defense and security applications offer the largest and most diverse market opportunities for vision in the near term (2010-2013):

* unmanned aerial vehicles ($2.4 billion)
* military and security robots ($309 million)
* unmanned underwater vehicles ($21.3 million)

However, relatively simple vision systems for robots in the office or warehouse offer some of the fastest growing opportunities, as do vision systems in robots used for education and research, and for simple home surveillance.

For example, DARwIn-OP (left) is an open-source, open-platform research robot developed by a partnership of universities led by the Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech.

In addition, the healthcare industry offers substantial new opportunities for robot vision in surgery, rehabilitation, care, and assistive living. As populations age around the world, service robots will play critical roles in compensating for limited nursing staff, improving outcomes, and enabling many people to live independently longer.

The adaptation of service robots could be surprisingly fast if low-cost machines were available. With the advent of consumer technologies such as the Microsoft $150 Kinect with SDK and the numerous applications now being developed, machines with reasonable 3-D capabilities at a reasonable price, whether developed for games or industrial inspection, will soon be at hand.

P.S. There are many enlightening videos around of what is coming from the research community. This one about Leonardo from Cynthia Breazeal at MIT is a favorite.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Twice as efficient? Well, sort of

John Wallace
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

As a former optical engineer, I have carried over that profession's analytical outlook into journalism. Is that a good thing? Well, maybe not always. For one thing, I can't just relax and read science and technical content written for the popular media without getting all bothered by it.

This includes science articles in which the size of things seems to be either "vast" or "tiny," every new lab technique is "special," and scientists are perpetually "peering" through microscopes. Hmph. And too, there are technical press releases containing info that is probably aimed properly at its audience, but to me seems to be overly condensed.

Here's one example: Sony just introduced an innovative small (3 in.) VGA LCD module for digital cameras, which cuts power consumption when compared to a conventional LCD, or conversely increases brightness for the same power consumption. Called "WhiteMagic," the display does this by adding a white (W) subpixel to the usual red-green-blue (RGB) subpixels, resulting in an RGBW layout. Because the W subpixel has no tinted filter to cut down its transmission, the display is more efficient than normal RGB whenever there is white in the image.

Sony's claim for the display is that it is "enabling a reduction in power consumption of approximately 50%* and improved outdoor visibility (around twice* the brightness), suitable for implementation in Smartphones -- *compared with the conventional RGB method (Sony's comparison)." (See

Let's peer at this
So, for the same brightness, Sony says that the power is cut by about half. Now, all you photonics tech people -- think about that for a minute. First, let's assume that the R, G, and B filters each transmit 1/3 of the incoming light through them (in lumens) and that the subpixels all have the same area. Second, let's take two extreme cases: 1) when the LCD is displaying either an R, G, or B fully saturated color; and 2) when the LCD is displaying a totally white image.

In case 1, the W subpixel is off and either the R, G, or B subpixels are all operating. This means that all light passing through the display is filtered to 1/3 of its original intensity (as in a conventional LCD) but, because the W subpixel is totally off, only 3/4 of the total area is illuminated, making the Sony display 3/4 as efficient as a conventional LCD. (Please someone correct me if I'm wrong.)

In case 2, the W subpixel is on and the R, G, and B subpixels are all on too, combining to produce white light. In this case, a conventional LCD would have R, G, and B pixels all on to produce white light, and filtering all but 1/3 of the light in the process. The Sony display is filtered to 1/3 over the RGB subpixels, but is unfiltered over the W subpixel. Doing the math, in this case the Sony display is twice as efficient as a conventional LCD.

A bit frustrating to this ex-optical engineer. What I want to add is, "If you're photographing a polar bear in a snow storm, you'll get twice the efficiency!" Or, "If you're taking a picture of a red chair in a red room, you won't get an efficiency boost." However, most likely no one in the world is fretting about this but me. So be it.

Take that, Voldemort
Maybe someday I'll tell you about some of the "Harry Potter invisibility cloaks are just around the corner" pop-science articles I've seen.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Laser weapons are all fired up

Gail Overton
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

Numerous celebrations and mainstream news releases surrounding the 2010 50th anniversary of the laser were successful, I think, in raising awareness for the general public that lasers have indeed arrived. Although laser eye surgery, laser hair removal, and bar-code scanners are probably the most well-known laser applications in everyday life, nothing brings home the power of laser technology like laser weapons.

Once the stuff of science fiction, laser weapons are real and being deployed more and more in both military and civilian settings. You can find a great review of laser weapons from Jeff Hecht by clicking here, and information on a new Wiley book from Lehigh University professor Alastair McAulay entitled Military Laser Technology for Defense: Technology for Revolutionizing 21st Century Warfare can be found here.

And check out this YouTube video of a maritime laser demonstration:

The video above shows how the Office of Naval Research successfully disabled a small ship using a solid-state, high-energy laser mounted on the deck of the Navy's test ship, the former USS Paul Foster.

On the laser countermeasure or weapon-defeating front, an August Laser Focus World article on infrared countermeasures (IRCMs) shows how these missile-busting IRCM laser devices are already being deployed on commercial airlines!

Lasers that destroy missiles and enemy combatant small vessels or hostile unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are OK in my book; however, those Laser Energetics Dazer Laser or BAE Laser Dazzle weapons that "disable" hostile civilians or angry crowds raise many questions. Not sure if the public would prefer a laser beam to a rubber bullet; only time will tell.

--Gail Overton

Thursday, August 11, 2011

New world, old world, web site redesigns

Conard Holton
Associate Publisher, Editor in Chief
Laser Focus World
The Laser Focus World web site, along with our companion sites OptoIQ, BioOptics World, and Industrial Laser Solutions, have undergone a redesign that will increase the value and improve the usability of the technical and business information we provide. The changes are both clearly visible on the sites and significant behind the scenes in how the sites perform. Please let me know what you think of the changes.

These web sites are not the only new development. After 18 years at Laser Focus World, editor in chief Steve Anderson has left to pursue an opportunity with SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. I have assumed his role with a deep respect for the fact that Laser Focus World has a 45-year history as a valued resource for the global photonics community.

I’ve been in the photonics field for 20 years and worked with Laser Focus World since 1997. During that time I was also the editor of WDM Solutions during the telecom boom and, most recently, Vision Systems Design. In addition to Steve Anderson, I’ve had the privilege of working with leaders of Laser Focus World such as Heather Messenger and Jeffrey Bairstow, who currently contributes the back page column of the magazine.

I will share posting to this blog with my colleagues Gail Overton and John Wallace, both senior editors of longstanding at Laser Focus World. Managing editor Carrie Meadows and associate editor Lee Mather may not be so visible but they make much of what we produce possible. All of us look forward to continuing our work with the photonics community and to exploring new avenues of communication.