Photonics power play: NSF grant is creating collaboration among academia, industry

Craig Arnold, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University and the school’s vice dean for innovation, has long known the relatively new field of photonics is an emerging technology that could lead to incredible breakthroughs in numerous fields — including health care, clean energy and communications, among a host of other sectors.

And he’s obviously long known the state’s history of innovation.

But, it wasn’t until a group of universities, business and economic development agencies came together to apply for a National Science Foundation grant to increase the study of photonics that he truly understood just how many entities in the region understood the potential impact and were willing to put competition aside for an opportunity to do the research.

“It was incredible how much support there was when we were putting the team together,” he said. “Industry said, ‘Yes, we want to be involved.’ Government said, ‘This is something we definitely want to do.’ Universities said, ‘Where can we sign up?’

“It was amazing because, if this is the kind of thing that we want to truly drive the regional innovation ecosystem, we need all of us coming together and saying, ‘We want to create something, and then we’re going to make it happen.’”

A grant from the National Science Foundation — one of 44 Regional Innovation Engines awarded last week — will make that happen.

Participating companies

The companies involved in the Advancing Photonics Technolgies research:

Edmund Optics
Hellma USA
Horiba Scientific
Kearfott Corp.
Metrohm Spectro
Nokia Bell Labs
Nubis Communications

Participating universities/colleges

The schools involved in the Advancing Photonics Technolgies research:

Princeton University (lead institution)
Rowan University (co-lead institution)
Delaware State University
Lehigh University
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Penn State University
Rowan College of South Jersey
Rutgers University – Newark
Rutgers University – New Brunswick
Stevens Institute of Technology
Sussex County Community College
University of Delaware

The NSF Engine program, created by the CHIPS Act, is aimed at assisting such efforts. The grant will lay the groundwork for a multistate collaboration called Advancing Photonics Technologies, which will aim to advance research, transition discoveries into the economy and build the region’s technological workforce.

Princeton (and co-lead Rowan University) will lead a collaboration of 12 universities (in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware) and 11 companies (including Nokia Bell Labs) as well as statewide economic and workforce development programs, and technology accelerators and incubators that help transition research into startup companies.

Of course, anyone involved in research knows the challenges of getting two entities — let alone two dozen — to work together. Especially when it involves companies and universities that compete against each other.

Arnold understands that’s a big part of his role, but he’s confident he’ll have success.

“This is about finding the opportunities for the win-win-win relationships,” he said. “Look at it from an industry perspective: Companies like Thorlabs and Edmund Optics, two of the largest optics companies in the world, compete against each other — but they have common needs for a workforce that’s educated and knows the skills that are needed to develop our grow technologies.

“Small startups know they need connections to researchers at universities.”

Arnold said there will be concerns about intellectual property, but he feels the potential breakthroughs — all while helping to create a next-generation workforce — outweigh them.

“It starts with a common idea that we have similar needs,” he said. “Then, we can work together. That’s the part of the ecosystem that we have to bring out. We have the brain power; we have the companies. We need the people and the structure and the opportunities so that people want to stay here and not go to California.”

The payoff could be huge, Arnold said. For starters, it may help non-scientists understand the practical side of photonics — and its incredible potential.

“Photonics is the study of light, the use of light and the applications of light,” he said. “We don’t realize how central that is to so many of the technologies that we depend on.

What is photonics?

Photonics is the branch of science that includes lasers, optical fibers and cutting-edge light-based innovations. It is an emerging technology has applications in numerous key fields, including health care, clean energy, computing, telecommunications, advanced manufacturing and more — with the potential to improve cancer detection, food safety, smart phones, computing and self-driving cars, among other uses.

“Whether we’re talking about health technologies, agriculture, communications, manufacturing, you know, somewhere, there’s a little beam of light that’s moving somewhere else, and it’s carrying information.”

Photonics, Arnold said, does not solve the issues as much as it assists the things that do.

Arnold said photonics can help produce the information that can help us understand whether crops are appropriately hydrated, whether a particular functioning molecule is working in a cell, how manufacturing can become more efficient and environmentally friendly or how we can communicate on new forums such as Zoom.

New Jersey — and the region — is the ideal place to do this research, Arnold said.

“New Jersey has the highest density of optics and photonics companies anywhere in the country,” he said. “But there’s a lot of small ones — there is not a lot of connectedness. 

“If you combine the fact that we have just tremendous institutions and an enormous population of scientists — and then look at our history — it all comes together. 

“If we really want to drive innovation in this region, we can come together and we can shepherd the resources, shepherd the people, the companies come together and solve those challenges.”

In the end, it’s exponentially more than the cliché phrase of 1+1=3.

“This is what excites me — growing something that I know is going to create an environment that will be hard to believe. There’s a multiplier here that I think is really exciting.”