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A recently released report from several German trade and research organizations argues that photonic technologies can represent “a driver of global sustainability,” and that the application of these technologies can prevent some 2.92 billion tons of annual CO2 emissions by 2030. Those avoided emissions, according to the study, would “correspond to at least 11% of the agreed target” of carbon reductions needed to cap the total industrial-age increase in global mean temperatures at 1.5 °C, a key goal set by the Paris climate accord of 2015.

Eight technologies in the spotlight

The report, “Light as the Key to Global Environment Sustainability,” was developed by Messe M├╝nchen, an organizer of international trade fairs (including the behemoth Laser World of Photonics), and the German optics and photonics trade organization Spectaris e.V., in cooperation with Fraunhofer ILT, Fraunhofer Light & Surfaces, the France-based photonics consulting firm Tematys, and the Photonics21 public-private partnership.

The study’s stated aim, according to one of the several introductions to the piece, is to examine “the profitable use of photonics for the sustainable treatment of resources from all angles.” To do so, it breaks out eight photonic technology examples—photovoltaics (PVs), energy-efficient lighting, optical communication in data centers, fiber optic networks, energy-efficient displays, optical early forest-fire detection, laser-supported metal recycling, and optical communication in 5G networks—and attempts to quantify the avoided CO2 (or CO2 equivalent) contributed by each.

The report’s calculations conclude that as of 2019, these eight photonic-technology segments are already allowing the avoidance of 1.13 billion tons of atmospheric CO2 equivalent that more polluting alternatives would otherwise churn out. And its growth calculations suggest that the total annual avoided CO2 equivalent from these technologies could reach 2.92 billion tons by the end of the current decade.

Big solar impact

Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of the contribution comes from increased deployment of PVs for energy, which accounts for 0.57 billion tons, or around half, of the estimated 1.13 billion tons of avoided CO2 attributable to photonics in 2019. That number is based on estimated global energy production from PVs of 711 terawatt-hours (TWh), or 3.1% of total global energy production.

The report’s authors envision that proportion growing to 10.5% of global production, or 3,268 TWh, by 2030. In that scenario, the avoided CO2 contribution attributable to PV alone would be 2.13 billion tons—a whopping 73% of the total CO2 avoidance for the year attributed to the eight photonic technologies.

Of the other technologies, energy-efficient lighting carried the second-biggest potential impact, at around half a billion tons of CO2 equivalent avoided in the year 2030. For the other six technologies, the gains were far more fractional (and, arguably, at least a bit more speculative) in nature. In those six, avoided annual CO2 equivalent by 2030 ranged from 81 million tons from better early detection of forest fires via optical technology, to only 1.1 million tons of CO2-equivalent avoidance via “innovative photonic network components” in data centers.

Emphasis on Germany

Also unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the organizations authoring and underwriting it, the report devoted more than half of its pages to a section on “German high-tech solutions for environmental sustainability.” The section recounted a range of German projects in which lasers and other optical technologies play a role in metals recycling, climate research, lightweight-automobile construction, industrial production, sustainable agriculture and a host of other areas.

In a press release accompanying the report, Reinhart Poprawe, a former director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT, speaking from a German perspective, suggested that the report underscores that “photonics makes it possible to constructively combine economy and environmental protection.”

“This is achieved,” said Poprawe, “by both increasing the efficiency of manufacturing processes and producing optimized components for Germany’s transition to renewable energy, particularly through precision work using ultra-short-pulse lasers or by using additive manufacturing processes. Components optimized according to economic and environmental criteria can be found in solar, battery and wind power technologies, for example.”