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Photonics: An industry moving at the speed of light

Written by Stephen O’Sullivan, STOA trainee

Photonics is all around us; it is an integral part of modern human society, contributing to our daily lives. The science of photonics is the study an utilisation of light or photons. Consequently due to its interdisciplinary nature it crosses the fields of physics, chemistry and electrical engineering.

Fiber optics

© Péter Mács / Fotolia

The majority of society is unaware if the collective study of phonics or its importance to industry. Instead of seeing devices that are produced by, or that use photonics, we simply see electronics. Unaware of the amazing technology within, it’s extensive nature or its complexities. Yet photonics is a sector that is increasingly vital to our economic growth and standard of is driving innovation forward faster than ever before and revolutionising our lives, and altering the way we view and experience the world around us.

The most commonly known example of a photonic device is a laser. Lasers can be used for boundless purposes, yet photonics is much more than this. It is used for energy efficient LED lighting or optical fibres that are being further developed to deliver information at near the speed of light (e.g. fibre optic broadband, phone calls). Photonics is also used in the fields of safety and security, solar panels, specially treated glass, electronics, 3D printing, laser and lighting for military purposes, agriculture, and medical purposes where it can be used for disease or injury detection and treatment. It is also used for precision manufacturing of medical devices, and the automotive industry etc.

The vast scope of applications for photonics shows the diverse implications that the science of photonics has on our global economy and standard of living. In 2011 it was estimated that photonics had an impact on around 10% of the European Union’s economy, creating a leveraged market value of €58.5 billion, employing around 290,000 people. This is expected to grow, and offers the European Union (EU) a chance to become the world’s leader in photonics. Producing in Europe from materials sourced in Europe and exported globally. Europe has the knowledge base, researchers, designers, equipment and component manufactures to expand the industry further and further, leading the way for future development. In order to achieve this growth, public authorities need to get more involved and ensure continued investment and public awareness for the future.

As with most industries, technology has no borders, business is a global game, and companies will go where the markets are, meaning we must endeavour to keep Europe’s photonics industry here in the EU. The sector has a substantial leverage effect on the European economy, and photonics requires a long term commitment from both public and private sides. Recently both sides formed the Photonics Public and Private Partnership (PPP). This alliance between the European Commission and the photonics industry represented by Photonics21, aims to support the field in the long term, with a specific focus on growth and jobs.

Under the newly agreed €70 billion Horizon 2020 – The Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, photonics is expected to receive at least €100 million each year for the next seven years. Totalling a staggering investment of €700 million of EU funds to help the industry grow in order to meet our future needs. In vast excess of this investment, the European photonics industry has committed to invest €7 billion in the Photonics PPP by 2020 within the 2020 Horizon framework.

Despite this optimistic outlook, there is still one major threat to the development of the photonics industry in the EU. The Regulation on Registration. Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) legislation is an ever expanding list of restricted substances. This poses a threat to the availability of the required substances for the photonics industry. If companies will not be able to use the substances they require within the EU, then those that can will outsource their production, while smaller enterprises will run the risk of major financial loss or even closure. It is clear that photonics is a key enabling technology for Europe, and it is vital that it is left to grow and innovate, thereby improving our standard of living and aiding our economic growth.


About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 27 MEPs nominated by 11 EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.


2 thoughts on “Photonics: An industry moving at the speed of light


  1. Pingback: Discovering the world of quantum optics | European Parliamentary Research Service - December 2, 2015

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