Growing up, I LOVED reading and watching the Harry Potter series.
Today… I still love the Harry Potter series. ⚡
Because magic is extremely fascinating to me and something else I’m intrigued by is technology.
One of my favorite quotes by Arthur C. Clarke says,
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. 💫
What if I told you that some of the magic we grew up with in stories could be the technologies of tomorrow…
Because it’s possible if we decide to create it today.
Let’s go travel back in time to book one of Harry Potter when we learned about the invisibility cloak. 🚀 (For those who don’t know what it is — it’s a magical cloak Harry [the main character] receives for Christmas that gives him the ability to appear invisible when covering him).
When we read or watched it initially I think the majority of us thought it was something only possible in a book. To us, a real-life invisibility cloak would be magic or impossible because we’ve yet to create one and most of us don’t think we have the resources to create one.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: we don’t need any magic to create an invisibility cloak (at least not the sort of magic we think about in books. To me real magic = technology) and yes it is possible! 🥳
How can we make a real-life invisibility cloak, you may be wondering?
Through manipulating light or photons (I’ll explain what these are very soon 😉) using photonics.
Photonics is the field of technology related to the properties, transmission, and manipulation of photons. 🔦
Photons are tiny bundles of electromagnetic energy.
They are the building blocks of light, as they are an elementary particle.
An elementary particle is a basic unit of nature. In this case, the particle is a light particle. Additionally, they are elementary particles because they are not made up of any other smaller particles.
So why study photons? Why not just study larger light particles?
This brings us to a field called nanotechnology (check out this article on nanotechnology to learn more).
Nanotechnology is the field relating to the study of things on the nanoscale. These objects are extremely small like photons.
They are way smaller than we can observe with our eyes and we use tools like microscopes to research them.🔬
Sometimes to create big changes to an object it must be manipulated at the nanoscale. Being able to manipulate photons, gives us the ability to manipulate light itself. This has lots of exciting applications that can help solve some of the world’s biggest challenges and also create fun projects that push current human innovation like invisibility cloaks.
There are several researchers in the photonics field working on the concept behind an invisibility cloak, as part of a subfield called metamaterials. You’ll learn more about metamaterials and approaches to achieving invisibility later on in this story. But first, we need to learn more about the basics of how light travels and its properties. 🔦⬇
Traveling in waves and other light fundamentals. 〰
Light is all around us from the scanners used to scan our food at the grocery store 🛒to the laser printers we use to put digital images on paper. Photonic technicians figure out how to manipulate the properties of light to make these processes possible.
The 🔑 fundamentals of light:
- What is it? In simple, a special form of electromagnetic energy.
- The speed of light in a vacuum travels at c = 2.99 × 108 m/s and light always travels in a vacuum at a constant speed.
- Light travels in a straight line in the form of a wave.
- The straight-line pathway light travels in can be interrupted by a medium. Two main things can happen when it hits a medium: refraction (it is deflected when passing between mediums) or reflection (bouncing off a surface).
Many of these properties are a throwback to Grade 10 science class. 🧪 In the diagram above, you could think of the normal as a mirror or another medium that light hits. It can then be refracted or reflected because the medium interrupts its path in a straight line.
Now on to something a bit more complicated than Grade 10 science.
Light has a dual nature. 👯♂️
Light has the ability to behave in two main ways.
The first is that light behaves like a wave as it moves through space.
The second is that it behaves as a discrete particle. This discrete particle has a discrete amount of energy (quantum energy) that can be emitted and absorbed. This second behavior is light as a photon. Since it emits and absorbs energy, it also gives off frequencies of energy that can be tracked for different applications like medical imaging. 💡
These frequencies of energy bring us to the electromagnetic spectrum. 🌈It’s the spectrum used to measure the light emitted by a photon and this can be used for a wide range of applications from x-rays to radar.
Overall, light has many different properties and behaves in two ways. In order to manipulate light, it’s first important to understand the fundamentals of lights and their different properties. 🔑
Light can be manipulated with different mediums and techniques.
Light in its wave and photon forms can be manipulated using different mediums (like mirrors and lenses) 🔍 and techniques like changing the angle a medium is at when the light hits it.
Other techniques include:
- Developing and using nanocrystals to emit and manipulate light.
- Creating synthetic magnetism to manipulate light for nanoscale applications.
- Using other metamaterials to manipulate light. Nanocrystals are an example of a metamaterial. These are nano materials engineered for the purpose of manipulating light.
Photonics applications that have the potential to disrupt the way we live:
There is a wide range of photonics applications that have the potential to completely disrupt the way we live today. The following are a couple of industries photonics applications can disrupt that I thought deserved highlighting. ⬇
One area photonics can and has made a huge impact on the medical industry. The manipulation of light gives us the ability to take clearer more accurate medical imaging. This can help spot tumors earlier and monitor them.
An example of this is quantum dots — a metamaterial being injected into a patient, prior to medical scanning. The dots will attach to any tumors and emit a specific frequency of light that medical imaging machines (e.g., MRI — magnetic resonance imaging machine) can pick up to figure out if there’s any tumors. 😎
One company to check out in the healthcare space is Avenda Health. A startup combining focal laser ablation and real-time medical imaging (both involving photonics manipulation techniques) for cancer patients.
Agriculture Applications 🍅
Photonics has changed the farming space forever with vertical farming and it will continue to disrupt the agriculture space in the coming years. (I’ll be writing an article in this series on the future of farming with light. So stay tuned. 😉)
Vertical farming involves growing crops indoors, with less resources (less water, less light, no soil, and less land), vertically, and with a combination of technologies.
A popular technology being hydroponics (a more efficient water usage system) and LED lights (LED = light-emitting diodes).
Growing healthy crops (specifically the process of photosynthesis) doesn’t require the full spectrum of light. Red, blue, or purple LEDs can provide spectrum-focused photonic energy to plants. 🌿 This reduces energy usage making vertical farming an economically competitive and more sustainable agricultural practice.
We can thank photonics for that incredible innovation. 👏🏼
Computing is a major focus area for photonics right now. 💻 The current process for computer chips is using electrons because of their small size. One problem with this method is that electrons aren’t fast enough.
A solid solution — you guessed it! Photons. 💥This research area is known as optical computing.
Photons don’t have mass and using photons in computer chips could improve the efficiency of computing.
This can be done by turning electrical signals from computer chips into pulses of light. It will replace the need for copper wires on chips that transmitted the electrons previously.
Using pulses of light can enable chip-to-chip optical communication and overall faster computing! 🥳
Space Exploration 🚀
NASA is a leader in the research of many emerging technologies. They have many photonics research projects ranging from health monitoring to free-space communications.
Space communication is currently a large space problem. On Mars, there could be a delay of 30+ minutes once a communication signal is transmitted to Earth. This delay due to distance poses a problem because if there are emergencies on missions, support won’t be fast enough. ⏰
Photonics manipulation can hopefully help improve this area. If we could transmit communications using photons (currently the method is radio waves) and use mediums to manipulate how fast they get to Earth, this could become a faster process. One proposed method is using lasers.
This is just one of many applications of photonics for space exploration.
The moment Harry Potter fans have been waiting for.
Visibility… or should I say the lack thereof.
Recent research is being done using photonic crystals (crystal “atoms” made of dielectric rods) in a cloak prototype. However, there are still three challenges that need to be overcome in metamaterial creation in order to achieve the intended results.
In theory, achieving invisibility isn’t magic. What it requires is the redirection of electromagnetic waves.
An invisibility cloak would need to be able to bend all the light around an object it surrounds, so that it appears to be invisible. 🔑
New metamaterials and techniques need to be developed to fully achieve invisibility.
I think research being done in invisibility proves how powerful light manipulation is and how technology really is magic. 💫
Harry Potter isn’t your fandom? That’s okay. I got the Star Wars fans too.
Ever dreamed about training to become a Jedi and getting your own lightsaber? I know I have.
Researchers at MIT & Harvard, have been able to manipulate photons to behave as if they’re larger particles. They use rubidium atoms in a vacuum to manipulate photons to behave this way. When shooting a laser at two photons instead of one it became a two-photon molecule. 🤯
This state is what would be needed to create a lightsaber. Hopefully, in the near future (maybe by you 😮) we’ll have functional lightsabers. 🤞🏼
- Photonics is the research area of understanding how light behaves and how it can be manipulated.
- It is important to understand the fundamentals of light, in order to manipulate it.
- Light can be manipulated using different mediums and techniques. This includes metamaterials like nanocrystals and synthetic magnetism.
- There is a wide range of applications for photonics from improving agricultural efficiency & sustainability with vertical farming to creating faster computers.
- To achieve invisibility light needs to be redirected from an object.
- Photonics has the potential to disrupt many industries and can have a large impact on the future we create.
The future is full of light! ⚡
Metaphorically and technically with photonics advances and the impact it has on different industries & global challenges.
From fun examples of the power of innovation like lightsaber and invisibility cloak research to highly impactful projects like medical imaging for tumor diagnosis & monitoring; photonics has the potential to help solve some of the world’s biggest challenges. 🚀
And if that isn’t a good enough reason to work on or celebrate the field of photons…
It helps prove that magic is real and it’s all around us in the technologies we’ve created!
The question now is: what will we choose to create next?
Next up in the Manipulating Light series:
- Photonics Pioneers — Past, Present, & Future
- The Future Of Farming Is Light
- How E.T. Phoned Home — Photonics & Space Exploration
I’m also open to suggestions on what to write next (doesn’t have to be related to photonics). If you have any requests or want to collaborate, shoot me an email 📧 - firstname.lastname@example.org
Looks like you’ve made it to the end of this story! 🥳 Thank you for taking the time to read my first photonics article. 🙏🏼 I hope you learned something about photonics or maybe discovered a new interest to explore.
👋🏼I’m Adara! A 17 y/o futurist, innovator, writer, and activist. I have a huge passion for the environment 🌍 and exploration (marine, space, and terrestrial).
My mission is to help address some of the world’s biggest challenges and my focus is on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Within these goals, my main focuses are SDG #13 — Climate Action with the project Photome Labs and SDG #4 — Quality Education. 📚 Besides working towards this mission, I love learning about just about anything and writing when inspiration strikes. I aspire to become a marine biologist, pilot, and astronaut one day while working on some impactful projects towards my mission. 🚀
That was a little snippet about me. I love exchanging life stories and missions, so if you’d like to chat about that, photonics or other interesting topics connect with me on Linkedin and Twitter. You can find more of my work here and if you enjoyed this story follow my Medium for more.
Until the next story!
Your future lightsaber engineer (okay more realistically I’ll be working on photonics for agriculture — so future “agritonics engineering” 😉),