Mar 18, 2021

Photonics West 2021: Zemax CTO Reflections

Category: Industry Trends

Earlier this month SPIE held their annual Photonics West conference, the largest show of the year for the optics and photonics industry. Even though the event was entirely virtual due to the pandemic, it nonetheless featured a plethora of interesting and exciting content. I commend the organizing committee for putting together such a wonderful program under the circumstances! 

As usual, there were presentations on a wide variety of topics during the conference, from optics for autonomy and 3D sensing to lasers for 3D nano-printing and advanced manufacturing. Three important themes that I found of particular interest were:

1) Optics and photonics continue to play a key role for innovation in the life sciences.

This was highlighted throughout the BiOS conference. During the BiOS Hot Topics session, John Rogers (from Northwestern University) described exciting progress on skin-interfaced wireless wearables that can be used for physiological monitoring1. These devices allow for continuous tracking of patient health, both inside – and more importantly outside – of clinical settings.  Such tracking is key for monitoring the transmission of – and progress in fighting contagious viruses such as COVID-19. The seamless nature in which these devices are integrated onto the human skin make them robust and easy-to-use.

During the same session, Michael Kashke (from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) presented a wonderful summary of the state of Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) for ophthalmology2. He highlighted the growing role of photonic technologies in OCT, indicating that advances in semiconductor technology will allow for higher acquisition speeds in swept source OCT – providing higher resolution and thus better visualization. This will take OCT from being a static diagnostic to a dynamic, real-time technology. He also discussed the OCTChip project3, which aims to integrate optics and electronics onto a hybrid chip, providing for ultra-compact devices that can be used in point-of-care analysis.

2) Material science is critical to the next evolution of the photonics industry.

This was highlighted in very different ways during the event. During the BiOS Hot Topics session, Laura Fabris (from Rutgers University) described her team’s work in creating gold nanoparticles to help detect viruses such as COVID-19 using surface-enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)4. The method is sensitive to mutations of the virus but also robust to these mutations, making it extremely effective. During a panel discussion on integrated photonics5, Kevin Williams (from the Technical University of Eindhoven) described the benefits of indium phosphide (InP) for the next generation of photonic integrated circuits. These include providing low optical loss and high electro-optic efficiency. Finally, during a session on photonics in quantum held at the Quantum West satellite conference6, Kaitlin Moore discussed the need for new materials such as silicon nitride (SiN) and alumina (Al2O3) to create photonic integrated circuits that can operate in the visible wavelength range. Such circuits are needed to support quantum devices, which generally operate in the visible or near-IR.

3) Optics and photonics are driving rapid advancements in quantum technology.

For the first time, a satellite conference dedicated to quantum technology (Quantum West) was a part of the event. Peter Knight (from Imperial College) gave a wonderful overview on the state of the quantum industry7, describing the wide variety of applications for quantum technology. These range from computation to encryption, from metrology to imaging and sensing. Just as the topics of AR | VR | MR spun out from a satellite conference to a full-fledged event in 20208, I expect the same for the quantum event in the near future!

The talks that I highlighted above represent just a glimpse of all that was presented at Photonics West 2021. There were several more talks related to the themes I’ve identified, as well as many other exciting areas of growth and innovation within the industry. It was a wonderful event to participate in, and I look forward to doing so in person next year!


Sanjay Gangadhara
Chief Technology Officer