EDUCATION PLUS

Taming the power of Light

The International School of Photonics Lab at Cusat, Kochi.

The International School of Photonics Lab at Cusat, Kochi.  

FOR THOSE who want to know about the latest in photonics, Kochi is the place to be in for the next few days.

National and international experts in the field will converge on the city for Photonics 2004 - the seventh international conference on Optoelectronics, Fibre Optics and Photonics, which is being organised jointly by the International School of Photonics (ISP) of the Cochin University of Science and Technology (Cusat) and NeST Photonics Private Limited from December 9 to 11.

Photonics is the technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy. In short, it is the technology of mastering light. Curiously, attempts at exploiting light for meeting the evolving needs of society is in its infancy. Proper use of light will dramatically increase the quality of almost every aspect of our daily life.

Thanks to advancements in photonics and laser-technology, it has been found that a litre of seawater can generate energy which is equal to 300 litres of petrol, through laser-driven fusion. "This is because of the presence of deuterium (heavy hydrogen) in it. This could allay fears about what humanity will do, once non-replenishable energy sources (like crude oil) get exhausted. The U.S. Government has started a national-ignition facility for laser-driven fusion. By 2010, a pilot plant which produces energy using this technique is expected to be ready in the U.S. This energy will be marketed," says C. P. Girijavallabhan, Director, Centre of Excellence in Lasers and Optoelectronic Sciences (CELOS), Cusat. He is also the founder-director and professor emeritus at the ISP.

Similarly, non-lethal weapons like laser guns are becoming popular among armies worldwide. They immobilise enemy soldiers, but do not kill them. Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) have come to be used in traffic lights and in the display panels of cars. Thus, a single bulb lights up a big area, by using optical-fibre technology.

Again, using photonics technology, sunlight can be collected at one point in a huge building and piped to each room through optical fibres. Apart from saving power, it lights rooms, naturally. This technology has been put to use in some developed countries.

Emerging areas in the field are bio-photonics, polymeric photonics, optical computing and quantum computing. Laser technology is now used in a whole spectrum of areas - communication, medicine (eg. laser surgery), defence, engineering, imaging, computing and control and entertainment, throwing up a lot of job opportunities.

Most importantly, it is on the basis of photonics that electrical pulse is converted into light pulse in broad-band connectivity. "This optical communication is the backbone of the Internet. The silicon chip has given way to optical/photonic chip, thus speeding up the communication network," says Mr. Girijavallabhan.

The stress will be on optical-fibre sensors and optical-fibre components. A tutorial will be held on November 8 at Cusat for students. Renowned academics and authors from within and outside the country are expected for the event.

The ISP is unique in that it was the first department in an Indian university which devoted itself to teaching and research in the field of photonics. It came into existence in 1995, by restructuring and delinking laser labs and faculty members of the laser group in Cusat, from the physics department.

The ISP is engaged in many collaborative research activities with institutions in India and abroad. The most important one is with Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands.

The laser and fibre optics labs at the ISP are equipped with machinery which use cutting-edge technology. The students are engaged in measuring the time taken for concrete to cure (set), by passing optical fibres through the concrete. One of the powerful lasers at the lab can even cut a hole in a thin steel plate.

Among the other prominent institutions in India which offer courses in photonics and laser technology are the National Centre for Ultra-Fast Processes coming under Madras University; the IITs in Delhi, Kanpur and Chennai; IISc, Bangalore; Tata Institute of Fundamental Research; Regional Research Laboratory, Thiruvananthapuram; G. J. University, Hissar, Haryana; Anna University and the Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore. Most of them have been conducting cutting-edge research in photonics.

The CELOS was established at Cusat in 2002, aimed at organising teaching, research and extension activities in the field. It has started a five-year integrated M.Sc. course in photonics. Selection to this course is based on a common admission test conducted by Cusat. The UGC has allotted Rs. 5.5 crores to CELOS.

BY JOHN L. PAUL

Photo: H.Vibhu

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