By Simon Andrews

NONE of us can escape the climate crisis’s moral imperative to take action. Simultaneously there’s an economic incentive to pursue green technologies and this is confirmed by the rising investment around the world.

Glasgow is of course currently the focus of international attention with COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, taking place in the city. Many people, however, may be unaware of the city’s contribution to developing technologies to address this global emergency.

The science and application of light (lasers, optics or, more generally, photonics) is growing exponentially and Scotland is at the forefront of this pioneering sector.

In Glasgow we have a team of world-class scientists using photonics to solve real-world problems in areas such as medical devices, security and space. Increasingly, though, new photonics products are being created to help achieve net zero.

One way to cut CO2 emissions is, of course, to make more use of renewable sources. However, we urgently need to implement changes as efficiently as we can. Take the wind, for instance. Different landscapes can make harnessing the energy the wind generates via turbines very complex: the wind can be going in various directions across the broad sweep of the blades.

To maximise the wind’s full potential in all circumstances, you firstly have to be able to measure it. This can ensure turbines are situated in the right places and then, when in operation, blades can be adjusted to maximise electricity generation.

This is where light comes in. Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics, a Glasgow-based not-for-profit innovation organisation, has developed a suite of sophisticated LiDAR tools for monitoring the wind. LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging. Particles in the wind are scanned with a laser and tiny changes in the reflected signal measured to calculate the wind speed at thousands of points across the turbine area and several kilometres in front of the blades.

A modest improvement of 2-5% increased output, from an estimated 300,000 turbines around the world, would save the planet almost as much as giving everyone a smart meter, or not having to build a further five major nuclear power stations.

Vertical farming, cultivating crops indoors, is another area where light vastly improves efficiency. The right "light recipe" allows optimal growth of crops by adjusting the colours used at different times in the plant’s lifecycle. This process involves no pesticides, can use 1/250th of the water of conventional farming and growth can take place at night when electricity is in less demand. Furthermore, crops grow indoors all year and can be much closer to people in large cities, so there is potential to reduce transportation CO2 enormously. For consumers this means guilt-free tomatoes and lettuce!

These are only two examples but photonics has a whole variety of technologies and applications that are literally changing the world. The photonics industry continues to grow in Scotland and needs more young people to consider how light innovations can provide enlightened global solutions.

Simon Andrews is Executive Director, Fraunhofer UK Research