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About Optoelectronics/Photonics

May 2014

This Technology Map follows developments in technologies that enable the emission, detection, and harnessing or manipulation of light and in their applications and markets. The terms optoelectronics and photonics are often synonymous. This Technology Map focuses primarily on minute devices, which manufacturers often produce using semiconductor fabrication, such as diode lasers and photodetectors, optical amplifiers, switches, light-emitting diodes, and passive components that can route, combine, and split up light. These devices enable the storage and high-speed communication of information, and they could revolutionize the lighting business. Materials for optoelectronics include semiconductors, nonlinear crystals, nanoparticle materials, and optically active polymers.

The main demand for photonic components comes from makers of fiber-optic communications systems, optical storage systems, instrumentation, and lighting. Telecommunications systems continue to be the largest market, and demand is now increasing for use of optoelectronics and photonics in shorter-distance networks: metro networks, optical local-area networks, storage-area networks, and optical backplanes in computing. If developers can keep reducing component prices and improving integration and packaging, photonics could support communication between chips and even on the chip, as faster and faster speeds become necessary and as electronic interconnects reach their limitations. New, more powerful optical storage devices will also be possible as researchers produce lasers with shorter and shorter wavelengths. Moreover, the relatively recent advent of blue lasers and blue and white LEDs will have a substantial impact on displays and lighting. Last, lasers are finding more uses in industrial and medical applications; these segments have become some of the fastest growing in the recent past.

Optoelectronic and photonic components are part of the "black boxes" behind today's communications systems. Without them, the cost of communication would be much greater, and bandwidth bottlenecks would be much worse: Optoelectronics is truly a driver of the information age. Though optical interconnection competes with electrical wiring, many companies provide both types of interconnection. Similarly, white LED lighting has now surpassed other illumination technology both in running cooler and in offering greater energy efficiency. Mass adoption of white LEDs as incandescent-bulb replacements will still hinge on nontechnical challenges such as public education about their benefits and use, government policy changes, and establishment of proper sales channels. White LEDs are already replacing cold-cathode fluorescent lamps as the leading type of light source for liquid-crystal-display backlighting, and they will soon be the light source of choice for automobiles.