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Photonics and how its applications promise a new revolution

Light, sensors and sound and how these can help us understand our body better

With the pandemic, we've all become more familiar with medical equipment we didn't know before: infrared thermometers, UV sterilizers, and more. Among these, the use of a luminous plastic clip around the finger has become increasingly common. This clip is an oximeter that calculates the level of oxygen in the blood. But how exactly does it work? What is the technology that allows this measurement and what other things can it do?

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Photonics is a science belonging to optics that studies light and the propagation of photons through translucent bodies. The human body is translucent, that is, it does not block or reflect light. This means that part of the light is able to pass through the skin, muscles and blood vessels and exit the other side. This simple property was then used for the internal exploration of the bodies without any kind of invasion.

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Returning to the oximeter example, this is capable of measuring the ratio between oxygenated and non-oxygenated hemoglobin thanks to a red LED light located on one side of the clip and a light detector located on the other side. When the LED light passes through the finger it encounters the hemoglobin in the blood. Now, non-oxygenated hemoglobin absorbs red light to a greater extent than oxygenated one. The amount of light that is able to pass through the finger therefore depends on the proportion between these two types of hemoglobin. In this sense, different wavelengths can be used, such as infrared, which are just below those of the visible colors. The absorption efficiency of molecules, including hemoglobin, varies with the variation of the wavelength of light. For this reason, comparing the absorption of visible light with infrared can provide a more accurate estimate.

The emerging sensor industry is studying new and increasingly precise and less invasive estimation methods, not only to calculate blood saturation but also for blood vessel mapping and tumor profiling. The great innovation of the use of photonics in the field of medicine lies precisely in the capacity of inference, that is the possibility of being able to use a simple sample of saliva or sweat for the diagnosis of certain diseases. Human saliva, in particular, mirrors the composition of hormones and proteins in the body and can signal early on the presence of certain types of cancers and infectious or autoimmune diseases, including prostate cancer, sarcoidosis and a whole host of viral infections. The exploration of our translucent body through pulses of light is another possibility; the pulses of light, similar to flashes, are projected onto a specific area. When they reach a body, these impulses act like percussion; striking the molecules of the cells make them vibrate, these vibrations are recorded and then compared with the vibrations produced by other materials (each material has its own vibration frequency). This study is precise and non-invasive and allows to obtain the chemical composition of a tissue and understand whether the tissue is healthy or not.

Compared to other methods, the applications of photonics have the advantage of using 'photonic tracks'. As with electricity, which requires a conductor cable to pass electrons, the photonic tracks are optical fibers for the transport of photons. Photons travel at the same speed of light and given the absence of mass of photons compared to electrons, their transport does not involve the dispersion of heat, resulting in savings in terms of time and energy.

Photonics is not only innovating in the medical sector but also in numerous other areas. In computer science, traditional processors, chips containing countless electrical tracks on which electrons run, could be replaced by photonic processors simply by replacing electrons with photons (and reducing the risk of the computer overheating). In agriculture, photonics is used to monitor the state of the land or to harvest food at the peak of its nutritional power. This is possible thanks to the study of light in the moment immediately following the impact with the obstacle it encounters; when a light beam hits an object, part of it is absorbed and part is reflected. By studying the reflected part at different frequencies, it is possible to collect information on the chemical (degree of hydration, amount of sugars and amino acids) and physical characteristics of the object. In the automotive industry, light is used as a sensor to see through the fog or around the car (very similar to the radar technology of bats and ships, but the reflection of light is used instead of sound).

In conclusion, photonics promises to be at the center of the new innovations of the near future, both in the technological, medical, agricultural and industrial fields. The main countries that are now carrying out research in this direction are China and Europe. An economic value is expected to be around 405 billion dollars and a growth in jobs of around 20 thousand per year.

Translated by Veronica Giustiniani


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  • L'Autore

    Andrea Radaelli

    Andrea Radaelli, nato il 20 ottobre 1997, caporedattore del progetto 'Tecnologia ed Innovazione' mi considero un soggetto particolarmente vivace e interessato a come funziona il mondo. L’aggettivo che più spesso hanno utilizzato i miei parenti, i miei amici e le persone che mi stanno accanto per descrivermi è senza dubbio ‘curioso’.

    Curioso del mondo, di come funziona e dei nostri effetti su di esso. Non solo in campo scientifico ma anche economico e geopolitico. Mi interesso di tutto ciò che ha un outcome positivo e propositivo, soprattutto nella sanità e nelle nuove tecnologie.

    Curioso per le mie opinioni molto forti e per certi aspetti critiche sulla società, che a volte diventano i miei limiti. Alcune di queste sono che la conoscenza è faticosa ma rende liberi, che l’ignoranza nell’era dell’informazione è una scelta consapevole e che l’uguaglianza (dare alle persone le stesse cose) è un paradigma da superare con l’equità (dare alle persone le stesse opportunità).

    Curioso anche per la mia personalità; ho delle idee molto ben determinate, sono un convinto ‘individualista sociale’. Cioè che ognuno di noi deve prima crescere e acculturarsi secondo le proprie inclinazioni per poi poter entrare in un gruppo di lavoro per poterlo arricchire della sua prospettiva.

    Curioso per le mie scelte, dopo le medie ho scelto un liceo ad indirizzo artistico nonostante i miei professori spingessero per un liceo classico. Durante questi cinque anni ho avuto modo di viaggiare per l’Italia e scoprire gli incredibili siti dell’UNESCO. Ho viaggiato anche in Europa nelle maggiori capitali e mi sono innamorato dell’Unione Europea. Ho compreso quanto siamo fortunati del far parte di comunità internazionale e delle straordinarie opportunità che offre. Finite le superiori, ho scelto di studiare lingue applicate all’ambito economico nel CdL di ‘Scienze per la Mediazione Linguistica e Culturale’, un’università ricca di diversità; di nazionalità diverse, di lingue diverse e di culture diverse. Tutta questa eterogeneità mi ha spinto a ricercare un percorso magistrale decisamente più strutturato ed innovativo; 'Data Science and Business Intelligence'. La scienza dei dati si compone di principi metodologici basati sul metodo scientifico e di tecniche multidisciplinari volte ad interpretare ed estrarre conoscenza dai dati attraverso l'analisi statistica.

    Di Mondo Internazionale mi ha colpito la potenzialità, la composizione giovane e il dinamismo. Le aree tematiche nel quale mi trovo a mio agio sono economia, sanità e innovazione. Il progetto di ‘Tecnologia ed Innovazione’ è quello con cui collaboro maggiormente e, soprattutto grazie alla pazienza dei miei collaboratori, mi trovo veramente bene.

    Andrea Radaelli, born on 20 October 1997, editor-in-chief of 'Technology and Innovation' project, I consider myself as a particularly lively person and interested in how the world works. The adjective that my relatives and my friends have used the most to describe me is undoubtedly 'curious'.

    Curious about the world, how it works and our effects on it. Not only in the scientific field but also in the economic and geopolitical field. I am interested in everything that has a positive and proactive outcome, especially in healthcare and new technologies.

    Curious for my very strong and, in some respects, critical views on society, which sometimes become my limitations. Some of these are that knowledge takes effort but is essential, that ignorance in the information age is a conscious choice and that equality (giving people the same things) is a paradigm to be overcome with fairness (give people the same opportunities).

    Also curious about my personality; I have very well-defined ideas, I am a convinced 'social individualist'. That is, each of us must first grow and acculturate according to their own tastes in order to be able to be a good team player in a work group in order to enrich it with new insights.

    Curious about my choices, after secondary school I chose an artistic high school despite my teachers pushing for a classical high school. During these five years I have had the opportunity to travel around Italy and discover its incredible UNESCO sites. I also traveled around Europe in the major capitals and fell in love with the European Union. I realized how fortunate we all are to be part of this international community and the extraordinary opportunities it offers. After graduating from high school, I chose to study languages ​​applied to economics, 'Sciences for Linguistic and Cultural Mediation', a university rich in diversity; of different nationalities, of different languages ​​and of different cultures. All this heterogeneity pushed me to seek a decidedly more structured and innovative master's path; 'Data Science and Business Intelligence'. Data science consists of methodological principles based on statistics, scientific method and multidisciplinary techniques aimed at interpreting and extracting knowledge from data through statistical analysis.

    I was struck by Mondo Internazionale's potential, young composition and dynamism. The thematic areas in which I am comfortable are economics, health and innovation. The 'Technology and Innovation' project is the one I collaborate with most and, thanks to the patience of my collaborators, I am really happy with it.

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photonics light innovation health healthcare technological innovation

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