February 5, 2024
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.”
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.
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:
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:
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.
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 industry is pushing for the development of compact, energy-efficient, integrated systems, sparking innovation across the entire photonics landscape.
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.