Each chapter of the present report addresses the developments that have taken place over the 15 years since the publication of the NRC report Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century,3 technological opportunities that have arisen since then, and the state of the art in the United States and abroad, and recommendations are offered for how to maintain U.S. global leadership.

It is the committee’s hope that this study will help policy makers and leaders decide on courses of action that can advance the economy of the United States, provide visionary guidance and support for the future development of optics and photonics technology and applications, and ensure a leadership role for the United States in these areas. Although many unknowns exist in the course of pursuing basic optical science and its transition to engineering and ultimately to products, the rewards can be great. Researchers have achieved some dramatic advances. For example, work in optics and photonics has now provided clocks so stable that they will slip less than 1 second in more than 100 million years. Much more primitive clocks enabled the incredibly useful Global Positioning System (GPS), and it remains to be discovered how these new clock advances can be fully harnessed for the benefit of society. In many ways, the current period might be analogous to the dawn of the laser in 1960, when many of the transforming applications of that extraordinary invention had not yet been contemplated. This is only one example of technology innovation in optics and photonics that can lead to future major applications.


To fill identified technological gaps in pursuit of national needs and national competitiveness, the committee developed five overarching grand challenge questions:

1. How can the U.S. optics and photonics community invent technologies for the next factor-of-100 cost-effective capacity increases in optical networks?

As mentioned in Chapter 3, it is not currently known how to achieve this goal, but the world has experienced a factor-of-100 cost-effective capacity increase every decade thus far, and user demand for this growth is anticipated to continue. Unfortunately, the mechanisms that have enabled the previous gains cannot sustain further increases at that high rate, and so the world will either see increases in capability stagnate or will have to invent new technologies.


3 National Research Council. 1998. Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

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