A congressional optics and photonics caucus launched this week seeks to revive U.S. manufacturing capabilities while addressing a skills gap that backers of the technology say is stymying innovation.
Founding members of the caucus include Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Steve Daines (R-Mt.). Spearheading the optics initiative are Reps. Joe Morelle (D-N.Y.), and Brian Mast (R-Fla.). Morelle’s district includes Rochester, the industrial and academic hub of the American optics, photonics and imaging industries (Kodak and Bausch & Lomb were both founded there).
The goal of the caucus is “ensuring our nation remains the global leader in light-based technology innovation,” Morelle said. Optics and photonics technologies “quite literally light the way for our future.”
The congressional push for photonics innovations and the scaling of manufacturing is also backed by the Defense Department, which relies on precision optics technology for a range of weapons. The Pentagon is promoting the technology through efforts such as the National Imperative for Industrial Skills launched in November 2020. The initiative includes a precision optics consortium.
“We’ve got to have a skilled workforce that’s rightly sized,” said Adele Ratcliff, director of industrial base analysis and sustainment in DoD’s Office of Industry Policy.
“We have to have a coordinated approach on investments, starting with early research,” Ratliff added. “Then we have to move into applied technology, helping to bridge across from the art of possible to the art of practical. We have to have that investment in manufacturing scale-up in this country with that coordinated effort on workforce.”
Ratliff concluded: “Then we have to help create that aggregated demand signal for how this technology can be used so that our investors in the United States will invest in our companies.”
Promoters of light-based technologies note its close ties to semiconductor manufacturing, another national priority. “Integrated photonics use semiconductor fabrication and packaging processes to produce photonic integrated circuits” said Ed White, chairman of the National Photonics Initiative. “This means we get the benefits of semiconductor fabrication in the optics and photonics fields.”
Added White: “Improved accessibility at affordable prices have and will continue to propel advances in central processing design and efficiency. It seems like it’s a safe bet to look forward to having all-optical processors in 20 to 30 years.”
The optics push comes as Congress considers funding for a range of U.S. semiconductor, AI, 5G and quantum computing technology initiatives authorized in this year’s military spending bill. Lawmakers have yet to fund provisions of the Chips for America Act.
A bipartisan group of legislators led by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York is expected to introduce a funding bill shortly.
It’s unclear whether the R&D spending legislation includes funding for photonics R&D or skills training, congressional sources said.
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