Which industry employs twice as many people in the UK as pharmaceuticals and more than either the space or “fintech” sectors? The answer is photonics, according to the Photonics Leadership Group (PLG). For the last few years, it has been tracking and collating all the myriad applications of optical technologies or photonics. What’s more, the PLG reckons photonics could become a £50bn industry for the UK and generate an additional 100 000 direct jobs by 2035. “There is a lot more to come if the UK government invests in key transformative technologies in photonics in key vertical markets like energy, health care, and clean transport alongside private-sector investors,” says PLG chief executive John Lincoln.
The PLG has been doing a great job raising awareness of photonics and representing its members – many of whom aren’t big enough on their own to influence governments and investors in the way that big pharmaceutical and defense firms can. But photonics is hugely important, harnessing the light for everything from disease diagnosis and laser surgery to telecommunications and advanced manufacturing. Photonics is critical to making products and services deliver value to consumers and the industry.
In manufacturing, photonics allows the digital cutting, joining, marking, texturing, and 3D printing of materials, especially metals. Thanks to machine vision, meanwhile, photonics contributes to automated and robotic systems such as laser cutting and welding. Indeed, the industrial processing of materials accounts for about a third of the roughly £11bn global market for lasers.
Then there’s “vertical farming,” in which crops are grown in stacked layers under controlled conditions. Spectrally optimized light-emitting diodes can both optimize plant growth and reduce evaporation from the plants, meaning they require much less water than if grown outdoors.
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