You've probably heard of electronics, which is the control, manipulation, transfer and storage of information using electricity.
Photonics is the control, manipulation, transfer and storage of information using light.
Electricity and electronics uses electrons, photonics uses photons - the fundamental particles of light. In the same way that electronics was critical for technological development in the 20th century, photonics will be critical in the 21st century.
The global communications network is probably one of the largest endeavours ever taken on by humans. As our demand for communications increases, more and more technologies become obsolete or inadequate. The breakthrough created by the manufacture of optical fibres and of semiconductor lasers has given birth to a new discipline: photonics, or the science of mastering light.
A single optical fibre is able to carry the equivalent of 300,000,000 simultaneous telephone calls. This new photonics technology enables, for the first time, sufficient capacity to meet the forecast demand for fully interactive, multimedia, internet services.
The era of modern photonics began with the discovery of lasers in 1960, and its impact in telecommunications was enabled by the perfection in the late 1970s of low signal loss optical fibres for long haul undersea and terrestrial communications.
By replacing copper cables with glass, new photonic networks can span the globe with light highways linking cities, countries and continents and capable of transmitting information via multiple channels of different wavelengths - just as broadcasting uses multiple TV and radio channels to transmit audio and visual information.
Southampton University is at the forefront of this technology. In particular, research taking place in the Optoelectronic Research Centre has resulted in major breakthroughs in the development of devices and components, and systems and networks - including wavelength division multiplexed (WDM) devices, which has helped to dramatically expand the bandwidth which will be required for the knowledge economy.
Optical fibre and photonic technologies can also be used in other industrial applications. Theoretically, almost any physical or environmental parameter can be measured using light, including temperature, strain, electric current, vibration, chemical and biological pollution, or sound.
A growing area is biophotonics, where photonics technology is used to develop new procedures and techniques in biotechnology, microbiology, medicine, surgery and other life sciences, including veterinary medicine. Photonics has a growing reputation in solving clinical and research problems through advanced spectroscopy, lasers, microscopy and fibre optic imaging.