About Optics and Photonics

What are Optics and Photonics?

Optics and photonics are essential to creating new technologies that foster innovations across a broad spectrum of applications, helping to find solutions to global problems. Ongoing scientific discovery and application of optics and photonics, which are specialized fields of physics, engineering and other disciplines, enables high-tech manufacturing, high-power lasers, nuclear threat identification, solar power and other technologies critical to the health and safety of individuals worldwide and offers the potential for a scalable quantum computer. Many of today’s “must-have” technologies such as LED lighting, digital cameras, high definition TVs and smart phones, are enabled by optics and photonics. Based on the science of light, optics and photonics will continue to grow and enhance people’s lives.


Medical equipment uses optics and photonics to improve, and even save, lives. Eyeglasses, contact lenses, intraocular lenses, and LASIK surgery use optics and photonics to correct vision. Ophthalmic equipment, such as Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) help diagnose detect glaucoma and other eye diseases in their earliest stages, and is expanding into use for cardiology and other areas. Mammography and CAT scans, as well as MRI and PET scan equipment are based on optics. 


Laser-based machine tools and machine vision manufacture, mark, and inspect everything from cars and pipelines to the semiconductor chips in mobile phones. The field continues to advance, with higher power and shorter pulse lasers; and greater understanding of new materials, such as the use of new soft x-ray microlithography tools and materials for patterning the finest details on electronic chips for use in mobile phones and computers.

Defense and Security

Science and engineering research is the basis for many of the technologies currently being deployed to prevent and detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and conventional terrorist attacks, as well as treat victims. Optics-based sensors are key to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and advances in laser technology have been critical to military engagement.


Research into the physics of quantum effects in matter offers the potential to advance computing, sensing and communications. Quantum technologies, for example, are enabling a new generation of atomic clocks and ultra-precise sensors with applications ranging from natural resource exploration and biomedical diagnostics to navigation in a GPS-blind environment.

Solar Energy and Energy Conservation 

Solar cells and modules are now competitive as energy sources because of decades of advances in optics and photonics that overlap with solid-state physics, thermal science, materials, and chemistry. Solar power will be an important source for alternative energy to address energy independence and climate change. Accompanying this is the rapid commercialization of LED-based general lighting that helps to conserve energy consumption.


Fiber optic communication networks are what make the Internet affordable and accessible around the world. The optical fiber, and the optical components and equipment attached to the ends, bring videos, images and data into our work and homes, and to the towers that connect to our mobile phones. This field continues to advance to higher data rates and shorter delays to enable more capability, such as for emerging 5G wireless networks.

Deep Science 

Optics and photonics are enabling scientific exploration whether at the very small scale of sub-atomic particles or the scale of the cosmos. Supersized lasers blast targets with immense energy to explore the physics of subatomic particles and forces, the way that supercolliders have done up to now. Most of what we have observed in the Universe is known only through optics, first from the visible wavelengths observed by Galileo, and now covering wavelengths from x-rays to infrared and radio waves, and even gravitational waves detected with light.