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Definition: the science and technology of light

German: Photonik

Category: photonic devices

How to cite the article; suggest additional literature

Photonics is the science and technology of light, with an emphasis on applications. This term is used since the mid-1970s. An alternative term is lightwave technology. There is also the term photon science, which relates to the scientific part of photonics.

At the heart of photonics are technologies for generating light (e.g. with lasers or with light-emitting diodes), transmitting, amplifying, modulating and detecting light, and particularly using light for practical purposes. It thus builds heavily on optical technology (→ optics), supplemented with modern developments such as lasers and amplifiers. Typical application areas are

Photonic key technologies of particular importance are lasers and amplifiers, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), optical fibers and other waveguides, optical modulators, photodetectors (including cameras), and displays.

There is an analogy with electronics: just as electronics is the utilization of electrons, photonics works on the basis of photons. The quantum (photon) nature of light is often, but by far not always of interest in photonics.

Importance of Photonics

Photonics is considered as one of the key technologies of the 21st century. It supplements electronics in the form of optoelectronics (optronics) and exhibits a strong market growth, which is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. So far, photonics has achieved a deep penetration of mass markets in only a few areas, e.g. laser diodes in CD/DVD players and related data storage equipment. Huge growth opportunities could arise from the development of silicon photonics and other technologies for photonic integrated circuits, from LEDs with improved output power and efficiency, or from laser types (e.g. VECSELs) which are suitable for cost-effective mass production.

The importance of photonics is also underlined by the substantial number of Nobel Prizes awarded in recent years:

  • 2017: Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves” (→ use of laser interferometers for gravitational wave detection)
  • 2014: Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources” (→ light-emitting diodes)
  • 2014: Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy” (→ fluorescence microscopy)
  • 2012: Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems” (→ quantum optics, laser cooling of atoms, optical frequency standards)
  • 2010: Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene” (which has particularly interesting implications in photonics)
  • 2009: Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Charles Kuen Kao “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication” (→ optical fibers, fiber optics, optical fiber communications) and to Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor”
  • 2005: Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Roy J. Glauber “for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence” (→ coherence, quantum optics) and to John L. Hall and Theodor W. Hänsch “for their contributions to the development of laser-based precision laser spectroscopy, including the optical frequency comb technique” (→ frequency combs, optical frequency standards, frequency metrology)
  • 2001: Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Eric A. Cornell, Wolfgang Ketterle and Carl E. Wieman “for the achievement of Bose-Einstein condensation in dilute gases of alkali atoms, and for early fundamental studies of the properties of the condensates”
  • 2000: Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Zhores I. Alferov and Herbert Kroemer “for developing semiconductor heterostructures used in high-speed- and opto-electronics” (→ laser diodes) (together with Jack S. Kilby “for his part in the invention of the integrated circuit”, which is outside photonics)
  • 1997: Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Steven Chu, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William D. Phillips “for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light” (→ laser cooling)


[1]Conference proceedings Photonics, edited by M. Balkanski and P. Lallemand, Gauthier-Villars, Paris (1975)”
[2]C. Roychoudhuri (ed.), Fundamentals of Photonics, course for first- and second-year college students, available on CD-ROM or online open access via http://spie.org/x17229.xml
[3]B. E. A. Saleh and M. C. Teich, Fundamentals of Photonics, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York (1991)
[4]Day of Photonics, http://day-of-photonics.org/

(Suggest additional literature!)

See also: laser physics, optoelectronics, quantum electronics, optics, silicon photonics, photonic integrated circuits
and other articles in the category photonic devices

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