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John Joannopoulos

Light bounces off the small yellow square that MIT physics professor John Joannopoulos is showing off. It looks like a scrap of metal, something a child might pick up as a plaything. But it isn’t a toy, and it isn’t metal. Made of a few ultrathin layers of non-conducting material, this photonic crystal is the latest in a series of materials that reflect various wavelengths of light almost perfectly. Photonic crystals are on the cutting edge of microphotonics: technologies for directing light on a microscopic scale that will make a major impact on telecommunications.

In the short term, microphotonics could break up the logjam caused by the rocky union of fiber optics and electronic switching in the telecommunications backbone. Photons barreling through the network’s optical core run into bottlenecks when they must be converted into the much slower streams of electrons that are handled by electronic switches and routers. To keep up with the Internet’s exploding need for bandwidth, technologists want to replace electronic switches with faster, miniature optical devices, a transition that is already under way ( see ” The Microphotonics Revolution ,” TR July/August 2000 ).

Because of the large payoff-a much faster, all-optical Internet-many competitors are vying to create such devices. Large telecom equipment makers, including Lucent Technologies, Agilent Technologies and Nortel Networks, as well as a number of startup companies, are developing new optical switches and devices. Their innovations include tiny micromirrors, silicon waveguides, even microscopic bubbles to better direct light.

But none of these fixes has the technical elegance and widespread utility of photonic crystals. In Joannopoulos’ lab, photonic crystals are providing the means to create optical circuits and other small, inexpensive, low-power devices that can carry, route and process data at the speed of light. “The trend is to make light do as many things as possible,” Joannopoulos says. “You may not replace electronics completely, but you want to make light do as much as you can.”

Conceived in the late 1980s, photonic crystals are to photons what semiconductors are to electrons, offering an excellent medium for controlling the flow of light. Like the doorman of an exclusive club, the crystals admit or reflect specific photons depending on their wavelength and the design of the crystal. In the 1990s, Joannopoulos suggested that defects in the crystals’ regular structure could bribe the doorman, providing an effective and efficient method to trap the light or route it through the crystal.

Since then, Joannopoulos has been a pioneer in the field, writing the definitive book on the subject in 1995: Photonic Crystals: Molding the Flow of Light. “That’s the way John thinks about it,” says MIT materials scientist and collaborator Edwin Thomas. “Molding the flow of light, by confining light and figuring out ways to make light do his bidding-bend, go straight, split, come back together-in the smallest possible space.”

Joannopoulos’ group has produced several firsts. They explained how crystal filters could pick out specific streams of light from the flood of beams in wavelength division multiplexing, or WDM, a technology used to increase the amount of data carried per fiber ( see ” Wavelength Division Multiplexing ,” TR March/April 1999 ). The lab’s work on two-dimensional photonic crystals set the stage for the world’s smallest laser and electromagnetic cavity, key components in building integrated optical circuits.

But even if the dream of an all-optical Internet comes to pass, another problem looms. So far, network designers have found ingenious ways to pack more and more information into fiber optics, both by improving the fibers and by using tricks like WDM. But within five to 10 years, some experts fear it won’t be possible to squeeze any more data into existing fiber optics.

The way around this may be a type of photonic crystal recently created by Joannopoulos’ group: a “perfect mirror” that reflects specific wavelengths of light from every angle with extraordinary efficiency. Hollow fibers lined with this reflector could carry up to 1,000 times more data than current fiber optics-offering a solution when glass fibers reach their limits. And because it doesn’t absorb and scatter light like glass, the invention may also eliminate the expensive signal amplifiers needed every 60 to 80 kilometers in today’s optical networks ( see ” Blazing Data ,” TR November/December 2000 ).

Joannopoulos is now exploring the theoretical limits of photonic crystals. How much smaller can devices be made, and how can they be integrated into optical chips for use in telecommunications and, perhaps, ultrafast optical computers? Says Joannopoulos: “Once you start being able to play with light, a whole new world opens up.”

Others in Microphotonics

Organization Project

Eli Yablonovitch (UCLA)

Photonic crystals for optical and radio frequencies

Susumu Noda (Kyoto University, Japan)

Optical integrated circuits

Axel Scherer (Caltech)

Optical switches, waveguides and lasers

Nanovation Technologies (Miami)

Integrated devices for telecom

Clarendon Photonics (Boston)

Filters for WDM