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Future-focused business leaders are starting to grasp the potential of photonics, an emerging light-powered alternative to electronics that could clear technical bottlenecks, reduce environmental impact and unleash innovation.

While electronics transmit information with electrons that consume power and generate heat, photonics generates, detects and manipulates light particles, or photons, with significantly less power and heat. And because photonics can transfer significantly more data at nearly the speed of light, this new technology fundamentally increases transmission capacity and speed.

Compelling use cases show that pioneering companies are already adopting photonics to accelerate their success. Today, photonics powers lifesaving medical devices, air and water purification, industrial automation, transportation and more. Tomorrow, it promises further transformations. Photonics is already integral to the development of quantum computing, plays a crucial role in developing ultrafast artificial neural networks and is beginning to revolutionize communications. But what does it mean, in practice, for business leaders?

Factories of the Future

Mitsubishi Chemical is harnessing photonics to transform factory operations, enabling safer, more efficient manufacturing. The company’s senior vice president of innovation and chief technology officer, Larry Meixner, offers two real-world examples: “The first use case is remote operation using connected devices, which allows factories to operate efficiently and safely for workers and local communities.”

Central to this effort are digital-twin technologies that integrate sensor data with minimal latency. “For example, pipe-tapping sound detection is combined and transmitted at the edge, so there’s no delay between the image and the sound,” he adds. “That synchronized data enables the team to work together to provide a system-level demonstration showing key performance aspects in data security, sensor devices and infrastructure.”

Photonics, with its lightning-fast speeds and immense bandwidth, makes seamless remote operations possible. Factories of the near future will leverage this capability to optimize processes, minimize downtime and protect workers, says Meixner, speaking at the IOWN Global Forum.

Photonics offers the promotion of carbon neutrality by enabling end consumers to choose products with full awareness of their carbon footprint history.
Larry Meixner – Senior Vice President, Innovation and Chief Technology Officer, Mitsubishi Chemical

The Innovative Optical and Wireless Network—or IOWN—is a digital initiative by global technology firm NTT. The company is collaborating with like-minded businesses to create an All-Photonics Network (APN), that will connect networks, data centers, smartphones, vehicles and other devices optically end-to-end.

It uses multi-orchestrator technology to integrate information from the cloud, networks and individual devices. This ensures that data processing and connections occur at the right speed. Use cases include monitoring weather conditions, demand volumes and potential network failures and using artificial intelligence and machine learning to continuously improve the network.

A global collaborative effort of over 130 technology leaders is the goal of the IOWN Global Forum – established in 2020, with NTT, Intel and Sony as founding members. The aim is to work together to improve communications and computing infrastructure by sharing knowledge and resources and determining standards.

Innovation for Good

Mitsubishi Chemical’s second use case for photonics tackles the critical challenge of climate change. “[It offers] the promotion of carbon neutrality by enabling end consumers to choose products with full awareness of their carbon footprint history,” says Meixner, explaining that the key is NTT’s IOWN Data Hub, a secure, neutral platform for automatically gathering, analyzing and calculating a product’s CO2 emissions using real value-chain data. This level of transparency is trailblazing and requires cooperation between companies that might have been ordinarily reluctant to share proprietary process data.

“This has tremendous social value and we believe it’s the way of the future,” says Meixner. Crucially, “without IOWN Data Hub as a neutral platform, the security of the data cannot be guaranteed and the data would never be shared. The IOWN Global Forum is the catalyst that enables the entire effort to succeed.”

Photonics-driven platforms can accelerate the shift to a carbon-neutral economy by empowering consumers and providing information about their carbon footprints.

Smarter and Sustainable Future

NTT and Nokia recently completed a groundbreaking proof of concept using the latter’s mobile “front-haul” solution over an APN in telecommunications. The test demonstrated ultra-low latency and increased transmission distance for 5G networks.

Crucially, the results validate the IOWN Global Forum’s 2030 target of decreasing power consumption by 100 times, boosting transmission capacity by 125 times and reducing end-to-end latency by 200 times. Achieving these goals would revolutionize 5G and lay the foundation for even more advanced 6G networks.

Since the test results were published in January, Katsuhiko Kawazoe, IOWN global forum president and chair and senior executive vice president of NTT, has hailed the “significant achievement proving the effectiveness of the IOWN Global Forum APN. The result clearly illustrates technical feasibilities for a robust and flexible commercial mobile network with low power consumption.”

Emphasizing his company’s commitment to firm up more use cases and work with other pioneering businesses to speed the development of photonics, he adds: “NTT will continue to collaborate with Nokia and other IOWN Global Forum members to develop the next generation of information and communication technology infrastructures.”

With ongoing global collaboration through innovative consortiums like the IOWN Global Forum, the photonics revolution is poised to create a smarter, more sustainable world.