In a move that may help revitalize the United States' declining manufacturing sector, more than $600 million has been injected into the photonics industry thanks to a $500 million investment from a consortium of firms, as well as $110 million from the U.S. government. Although still a young technology, photonics has the potential to become an industry worth billions once the computing world begins to move beyond the limitations of current silicon-based electronics.
Photonics, or the science of transferring information via light rather than electricity, is just one of several potential future technologies that could take over from silicon. It is however considered one of the most viable and could offer potentially enormous gains in performance over traditional computing, as well as massive reductions in energy consumption, in turn providing a huge knock-on effect around the world.
However, in order to achieve these goals, much investment is needed, targeting not only production of the related components, but means of manufacturing them in a cost-effective manner. Hence the investment, which will see many American universities, companies, and government organizations work together to further the development of the technology.
This is the sort of investment that has already played out positively elsewhere in the world. As pointed out by Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor in Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, Europe is ahead in its development of photonics right now, due to more than 10 years of government investment. However, he believes that with this push, the U.S. may be able to catch up and potentially even overtake international competition before long.
Although one day the goal is to create entirely optical computers, in the near future a focus on hybrid optical/digital technology will be pursued. And with a near 30-percent drop in energy is seen as possible in the photon/electron conversion, the improvement over fully digital systems should still be noticeable.