While researchers in optoelectronics are exploring ways to communicate at the speed of light, sometimes a little face time works best.

The various fields being explored in optoelectronics dominated the inaugural symposium sponsored by the new Center for Optoelectronics and Optical Communications at UNC Charlotte. But what truly marked the gathering was the face-to-face communicating among university researchers across the state and among researchers and representatives from the public and private sector. Industry partners — including about a dozen exhibitors — were looking as much to promote their wares as to find potential collaborators.

For example, attendees heard about — many for the first time — about the creation of the North Carolina Photonics Consortium, a group of seven universities across the state that conduct photonics research.

The purpose, said Bob Kolbas of North Carolina State University, “is to vertically integrate photonics programs to promote the programs through education, research and community development.” By leveraging the already existing strengths of the programs, he added, the North Carolina schools can approach industry partners and give them the option of “one-stop shopping.” There are already 73 optoelectronics companies in the state.

When asked what the organization was going to do to further communication and sharing among the schools — such as repeating symposiums similar to Thursday’s — Michael Fiddy, director of the Charlotte center, one of the consortium members, said, “We’re so new, we haven’t figured that out yet.”

But they do know the issues they have to address, Fiddy said — such as creating photonic devices that are smaller and cheaper, hybrid systems, developing manufacturing standards, new materials and product drivers.

The consortium is made up of Duke, NC A&T, NC Central, NC State, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Charlotte and Western Carolina.

Although its Optics Center was just formed this past January, UNC Charlotte is already leading efforts for collaborations between universities. Earlier this year, it joined with Clemson and WCU to form the Micro-Optics Triangle, to share resources and form research partnerships.

Diversity of university efforts

Several of the universities got the chance to ‘strut their stuff’ by presenting overviews of their photonics and optoelectronics programs. At NC State, for example, the Lab for Advanced Photonics is looking into the areas of bioprobes, which are microscopic optical fibers inserted into cells, and optoelectronic textiles. At Duke, the Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Commutations Systems is constructing a 300,000-square-foot building, including two floors of optics labs, and focuses on the areas of optical networks, optoelectronic devices and systems, information spaces, biophotonics and quantum optoelectronics.

Researchers at UNC Charlotte, which is also in the midst of building two structures on its 100-acre technology campus, is working in such areas as near field microscopy, laser diode stabilization and electromagnetic modeling. Fiddy also announced that approval was expected on Friday for the university to add a Ph.D. program in optical science.

And while it’s not quite formal yet, UNC Charlotte officials did use the new name
for its research efforts — the Charlotte Research Institute (CRI). It was founded earlier this year as the Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation. The Optics Center is part of CRI.

Where is the industry headed?

While many of the symposium’s speakers spoke on a highly technical level appropriate for the more than 100 attendees — many of them scientists and students — the day began with an overview of the optoelectronics industry that anyone who has used a digital camera, PDA, DVD or flat screen monitor or TV could understand. All are products that use optoelectronic devices.

Fred Walsh, executive director of the Washington-based Optoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA), said that the view of the industry’s future depends on what segment you’re in. The optoelectronics-enabled devices market was $111 billion last year, and is flat. The $56 billion optoelectronic component sales market was $56 billion last year, more than a 20% decline from 2000.

So the news was both good and disheartening. “Communications equipment orders have dried up, and fiber is going to be flat for a long time. Profits for carriers have dropped 56 percent over the last several years,” Walsh said. “Digital imaging is going gangbusters. Last year, the sales of digital cameras exceeded the sale of film cameras, and the sale of DVD players exceeded the sales of CD players.”

However, Walsh voiced concern that much of the production and many of the jobs are moving to the Far East. He pointed out that 70 percent of DVD players are made in Taiwan and China and that since 1999, imports have exceeded exports in the electronics/communications areas. Half of the labor force in telecommunications products has been laid off since 1997.

“The question is — can we produce when the demand returns,” Walsh said. He suggested three ways U. S. companies could respond — stimulate broadband applications, improve the manufacturing infrastructure to reduce costs and foster emerging optoelectronic technologies and capabilities.