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Photonics: Harnessing the Power of Light

All around us, light is at work. The cameras on our phones, the parking sensors in our cars, the monitors on our desks — all are using the power of light to improve our daily lives thanks to a field of study called “photonics.” 

What is Photonics?

Photonics is a multidisciplinary domain that involves the generation, control, manipulation, and detection of light. 

Light, a form of electromagnetic radiation, spans a wide range of wavelengths across the electromagnetic spectrum. Because it is quantized, it can behave as a wave and/or a particle. (For instance, when light passes through a narrow slit, it acts as a wave, but when it hits solar panels, it behaves like energy-carrying particles.) Photonics involves using these different behaviors to design practical applications with the power and speed of light. 

photonics particle wave

What are Applications for Photonics?

Similar to how electrons are the building blocks of electronics, light is made up of photons — tiny particles of electromagnetic energy that move incredibly fast. It’s this speed that makes photonics-based systems an attractive option for a variety of applications, such as:

  • Displays and consumer electronics: MicroLEDs, OLEDs, LEDs, and LCDs all owe their brilliance to photonics. These technologies underpin the dazzling screens of our smartphones, tablets, and TVs, delivering vibrant colors and high resolutions.
  • Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) systems: Photonics is also behind the immersive experiences of augmented and virtual reality devices, in which high-speed light-emitting sources, integrated optical waveguides and gratings, flat optics, and optical sensors come together to enable the seamless blending of digital and physical realities. 
  • Renewable energy sources: High-efficiency solar panels, leveraging photovoltaic cells, capture sunlight and convert it into electricity while mitigating the environmental impacts of fossil fuels. LEDs also provide versatile, efficient, and more sustainable lighting solutions.
  • Data communications: The unparalleled speed of photons and minimal signal loss in fiber optics revolutionized long-distance communications. Photonics innovations, including silicon photonics, have transformed the landscape of shorter communication links, particularly within datacenters. Today photonics forms the backbone of our high-speed internet, enabling seamless video streaming, teleconferencing, and real-time data transfer.

Photonics applications

Key Benefits of Photonics Technology

  • Speed: Nothing travels faster than photons, so using light pulses to transmit information is ideal for speed-centric applications.
  • Bandwidth: The characteristics of light (wide frequency range, multiple wavelengths, minimal interference, low signal loss) enable immense amounts of information to be transmitted at once.
  • Energy: Photonics-based systems are typically very energy efficient due to the minimal loss of signal over long distances.
  • Size: Photonic components like sensors, microLEDs, waveguides, and integrated circuits can be made highly compact to minimize the physical footprint of various technologies.

Photonics and Optics

Optics and photonics jointly explore the physical characteristics of light and its applications. They are closely related fields with a sometimes-blurred distinction. While discussions about their exact boundaries are ongoing, it's clear that both play a significant role in our daily lives.

Optical engineers specialize in designing macro-scale systems involving light propagation and interaction with materials, creating essential components like mirrors, lenses, and prisms. These designs find applications in diverse industries such as consumer electronics, healthcare, aerospace, defense systems, and telecommunications. In these applications, the wave nature of light has a minimal or negligible impact.

In contrast, photonic engineers work on micro-scale designs where the wave nature of light is crucial. They delve into subfields like:

  • Plasmonics: exploring light interaction with collective electron oscillations at the surface of metals for enhanced sensor and nanoscale optical design.
  • Nanophotonics: manipulating light at the nanoscale for novel functionalities.
  • Optoelectronics: focusing on devices that leverage the interaction of electrons and photons.
  • Fiber optics: facilitating high-speed data transmission.
  • Quantum photonics: exploring quantum properties of light for applications in computing and communication.

What Is the Recent History of Photonics?

Photonics is a relatively young field, but as technological advancements make light manipulation more powerful and efficient, the impact of photonics will continue to extend to more areas of our lives. 

  • 20th century: The field of photonics began with the invention of the laser in the 1960s. As fiber optics became common in the 1980s, so did the use of the term “photonics.”
  • Early 2000s: Photonic crystals made it possible to miniaturize optical devices and enhance laser efficiency. Nanophotonics and plasmonics emerged.
  • 2010s: Silicon photonics began to integrate photonic components on common silicon substrates, leveraging the efficiencies of well-established electronics facilities and processes.
  • Today: The possibilities for photonics applications are wide ranging and varied, including quantum photonics and biophotonics.

The ever-growing demand for improved performance, lower energy consumption, and an expanded range of functionalities is fueling the necessity for increasingly intricate systems that call for the dense integration of functions with low power consumption. As a result, the photonics industry is pushing for the development of compact, energy-efficient, integrated systems, sparking innovation across the entire photonics landscape.

  • Miniaturization: Many applications come with strict constraints regarding weight and size, such as smartphone cameras, optical sensors, and microprojectors. Similarly, wearable devices like smart glasses, fitness trackers, and AR headsets all rely on miniaturized optical components for displays, sensors, and communication. Miniaturized photonic systems are also crucial in biomedical systems such as point-of-care diagnostics and medical imaging. For instance, lab-on-a-chip devices could potentially integrate optical components to analyze blood samples or detect biomarkers, making healthcare diagnostics portable and accessible.
  • Integrated circuits: The photonic integrated circuit industry is witnessing a transformative wave of innovation to meet our growing data consumption habits. Co-packaged optics and optical interconnects are addressing the escalating demand for high-speed, energy-efficient data transmission within data centers, offering solutions that reduce latency and improve bandwidth.
  • Artificial intelligence: Photonic computing and artificial intelligence (AI) are pushing the boundaries of processing power and data handling, with photonic chips offering faster and more efficient computations for complex tasks. Such emerging fields like quantum photonics hold promise for quantum computing, cryptography, and secure communication.

The evolution of photonics engineering will encompass novel materials, cutting-edge techniques in heterogeneous integration, 3D-IC integration and assembly, advanced packaging methods, and state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies. To engineer these next photonics-based solutions, engineers can accurately model photonic components, circuits, and systems using Ansys optics and photonics simulation software. These highly interoperable solvers address a wide range of multiphysics and multiscale challenges, helping photonics designers create future technologies that will fuel economic growth and propel human advancement.

Related Resources

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