What is Optics and Photonics?

In 2015, the world celebrated the importance of light and light based technologies as part of the UNESCO International Year of Light. As the 20th century heralded the advent and application of electronics, the 21st century will be one in which photonics will lead a new generation of devices.

Photonics is an enabling technology; its found in so many products and devices, yet often hidden from view.

Optics is considered to be the "science of light." Isaac Newton was among one of the first scientists to explore the nature of light, using simple prisms and lenses. Galileo used simple optics to produce a telescope capable of viewing the rings of Saturn and four of the largest moons of Jupiter. Even today, optics is not only a science but a technology; lenses and mirrors are used in eyeglasses, microscopes, and telescopes.

Photonics is the "technology of light." Some think of this as the integration of electronics and light based technologies. Your smartphone is an example of how photonics is both obvious and hidden. The sophisticated screen involves complex and miniaturized electronics and photonics, but its not possible without the computer chip itself. All computer chips are created using a process called lithography, a light based technology. Finally, the camera, involves not only lenses, but complex light sensors that turn photons into images with the help of software.

Careers in photonics are, by their nature, interdisciplinary. Photonics engineers work with electrical, computer, mechanical, aerospace, environmental, chemical, and many other fields, to produce the devices and products used every day. They solve challenges to make life better.

Today, there are over 35,000 companies in the United States that employ photonics engineers. Explore the various types of fields in which photonics engineers work. Together, in an interdisciplinary way, they Create the Future.

Enabled by Photonics


Incandescent bulbs, popular since they were invented by Thomas Edison have made way for more sophisticated lighting using LEDs. Saving tremendous amounts of energy, they are used in homes, offices and in transportation.

Solar Energy

Scientists around the world are researching materials and techniques to improve the efficiency of photovoltaics. One day, power may come from solar panels located on houses and apartments, rather than from electrical lines of distant power plants.


Already, laser surgery, endoscopy, and advanced imaging such as a camera in a pill use photonics techniques. Research may lead to biological printers capable of printing organs such as livers or kidneys. They may transform how body parts are repaired and restored.


Lasers are used for cutting, optical devices for mapping, and light based techniques are used in the production of every computer integrated circuit. Advanced manufacturing of integrated photonics will lead to increases in computing speeds and lead to new products.

Office and Business

Laser printers, bar code scanners, and projectors are common in every day life. Engineers are working on smaller, more efficient, and brighter projectors.

National Defense

Sophisticated photonics are on board reconnaissance satellites and many military weapons involves advanced optical systems. Soldiers are now using night vision contact lenses. Other types of contact lenses have 3X zoom capabilities.


Without fiber optics, the Internet is not possible. In fact, most of the communication from a mobile phone travels via a fiber optic network. Although maximum speeds on home Internet is up to 1 GB/s, research is demonstrating that these speeds may increase to well over 200 terrabits per second in just years.


Concerts, televisions, cell phones, augmented reality, and nearly every modern entertainment device is enabled by photonics. At concerts large video walls now replace video projectors while LEDs enable lighting displays that are lighter, faster, and cooler for performers.


The 787 Dreamliner, the newest aircraft built by Boeing has a fiber optic network that connects data systems onboard. Even the windows use photonics technologies, replacing mechanical shades with electrochromatic shields. Fiber optic networks offer greater security from hacks and electromagnetic impulses.


Researchers at CREOL are working on advanced manufacturing techniques that can embed photonics technology into clothing. One day the clothing may harvest solar energy, monitor blood pressure, change color, or detect threats.


Discoveries and new technologies are developed every day. From photography to medicine to everyday technology, nearly every aspect of our lives is impacted by photonics. See what is happening now.


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