Discussing the photonic future

Lasers could be used to sample atmospheric conditions and help us manage our local environment better, according to the North West Photonics Association

Lasers could be used to sample atmospheric conditions and help us manage our local environment better and respond to climate change, the North West Photonics Association heard at its meeting at STFC Daresbury Laboratory.

The meeting also heard how the latest developments in materials science could deliver cheap plastic solar cells that are more efficient and easier to install than current technology.

Prof Allan Boardman, director of the North West Photonics Association, said: ‘Climate change is a major global issue. It’s easy to think that when the world is changing, there’s little we can do locally to alleviate the effects. But new research shows that using lasers to sample the atmosphere around the town where we live can give us vital information that will allow us to manage our local environment. Lasers can reveal the chemical makeup of the atmosphere and warn us that, for example, smog conditions are developing at a time of year that we wouldn’t expect them. We can use that information to help manage emissions around our towns and so keep the air clean and healthy.’

He went on to say that photonics could also play a role in the drive for cheap, convenient renewable energy.

‘Solar cells help us to generate clean electricity for our homes and workplaces, but today’s solar cells which use silicon are expensive, difficult to install and only about 30 per cent efficient,’ he said. ‘Plants are much more efficient, turning almost all the light that falls on them which they can use into electric charge to drive photosynthesis. Researchers are following nature’s lead and developing new organic solar cells which offer not only much greater efficiency than we have at the moment, but which will be cheaper and much easier to install. This could be an important step to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels for power generation.

‘Climate change is a global issue, but photonics is showing us ways in which we can manage and improve our local environment to respond to the challenges it poses.’

Prof Colin Whitehouse, director of knowledge exchange at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), said: ‘I’m delighted this meeting was held on the Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus. The campus is a major UK hub for networking and exchange of ideas between STFC’s research activities, universities and high-technology companies, and supports those who want to go further and develop new companies to exploit those ideas. Responding to climate change will bring opportunities for researchers and companies which can lead to benefits for us all and the campus is an ideal venue to support such interactions.’