Optoelectronics: The Comeback Kid


In 1887, Heinrich Hertz first observed the photoelectric effect. Over the intervening years, that early observation gave rise to the optoelectronics industry. Far from being monolithic, there is a range of different, and even disparate, technologies included under the umbrella term “optoelectronics”. It may be that the technology is entering into a golden age, where its capabilities will be fully tapped in different areas of application.

Clearly, lighting and solar energy will become increasingly important, and data transmission will remain an area of high interest. The latter suffered heavily following the dot-com bust, but fortunately other areas have seen steady growth. Given the interest in lighting, it should come without surprise that, according to a recent report by the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA), the biggest driver for growth is still full-color LCD displays, which have been enabling and enhancing a variety of consumer-based products ranging from TVs and flat panel marketing displays to mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and personal entertainment systems. According to the ODIA, flat panel display revenues are expected to grow to $200 billion in the next decade for the full range of large-scale video displays.

Another area of interest and growth for optoelectronics is in lighting high-brightness white-light LEDs, which are expected to lead the growth of LED markets past $14 billion by the next decade. With the growth of consciousness regarding energy waste that accompanies incandescent and florescent lighting, the proven cost efficacy experience of LEDs in stop lights, and the continuing decline in the cost of LEDs, this area appears to have legitimate promise. In fact, the solid-state lighting market is forecasted to grow to over $60 billion over the next decade primarily in the form of high-brightness (HB) LEDs. On the other hand, OLEDs are expected to penetrate this market slowly due to their higher cost structure.

Solid-state diode lasers are ubiquitous as pointers at conferences, and the prices continue to drop even for the more exotic and coveted green lasers. That aside, the diode laser market has been projected by OIDA to reach $12 billion within the next ten years. That is double the current market size (obviously the market is much more diverse than simple pointers). Non-diode laser market value is expected to exceed the diode market in the next 5 years, driven by industrial and medical applications.

Growth in optical networking equipment is currently leading optical communications. Optoelectronic transceivers were a roughly $1 billion market in 2006. Optoelectronics transceivers continue to focus on ethernet and fiber channel 10 Gbps technology, however, a number of companies have shown that copper is quite capable of reaching these data rates at low power and low cost.

Data rates of up to 40 Gbps over a distance of one meter were demonstrated in copper more than 4 years ago1, but it is likely that optoelectronic transceivers will play a greater role to play in the future, due to improvements in cost and infrastructure maturation and support, along with its inherent ability to transmit in both directions in multiple wave lengths.

There are, of course, those who are bullish on the future of photons to do this and more. “Everything that was done with an electron in the last century will be done with photons in this century.” noted David Morse, Senior VP and director of corporate research, Corning, Inc. in his keynote at the OIDA Forum in San Jose on September 12, 2007. It is a bold claim, but boldness is important because it can rally participants to a cause.

Areas of interest for R&D now and in the future are broad, although efforts have been ongoing for a few decades. It has only been within the past several years that practical photonic ICs have emerged. They are being used in a range of product applications from tunable lasers with wide ranges, to single-chip transmitters and receivers, to single-chip chemical sensors. According to the experts, this type of photonic integration has long been sought after as the next big step toward low-cost, low-size, and low-power dissipation chips with increased capability.

In summary, optoelectronics and photonics are continuing their comeback in some areas and pressing well ahead in others. It is clear that optoelectronics is not a monolithic industry but one that is multifaceted, and will continue to provide industry and consumers alike with an expanding range of new and improved light-emitting, -converting, and -transmitting products.



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Joseph Fjelstad, president, may be contacted at SilconPipe,Inc.,1030 El Camino #262, Sunnyvale, CA 94087; 408/836-2856; E-mail: