The Future of Photonics

February 25, 2016

As hundreds of millions of dollars pour into Rochester to establish the nation's first Photonics Hub, biomedical engineering graduate faculty member Ben Miller weighed in on a News 8 special report, "The Future of Photonics."

Photonics is the science and technology of generating, controlling and detecting photons, which are particles of light.  A display at the Rochester Museum & Science Center houses examples of its many applications.  In one, a transmitter converts an audio signal from electrical pulses into light pulses. The laser beam sends that information to the receiver, which converts the light pulses back to electrical pulses and sends them to the speaker for your listening enjoyment.

Miller's research at the University of Rochester Medical Center involves creating optical bio sensors that can detect the presence of hundreds of viruses from a single blood sample, in real time.  "We're working to make devices so that you can immediately get that information in the doctor's office," Miller said. 

Dr. Miller uses photonics to visualize the designs being developed for the sensors, many of which are very small. He sees life-changing possibilities. "To me there's nothing more exciting than to be able to make a scientific advance and take that all the way to the point that it's going to impact somebody's life," he said. 

But we're still a ways away. Rob Clark, senior vice president for research at the University of Rochester and dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is a member of the Photonics Board for the State of New York. He will help direct Rochester's Photonics Hub. "What we're talking about here is doing for optics what we did for electronics many years ago," Clark said. 

Imagine the integration of photonics - taking many optical components and condensing them on a single, tiny chip. "It's the miniaturization of things like your camera on your phone," said Clark. "Tremendous applications for the Department of Defense."

To that end, the DOD has made a five year, $110 million commitment to Rochester's American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics.  The AIM Photonics Hub is also receiving $250 million from the State for infrastructure and job creation. Clark says private investment will bring the five year commitment to over $600 million.

But what about beyond five years? Clark says the key to retaining and ultimately growing the thousands of high tech, good paying jobs that have been promised will be the ability to commercialize military concepts like a drone or a self-driving vehicle. Clark noted many of the tools needed to manufacture these concepts on a mass scale don't even exist currently.  "It's a big lift," he acknowledged.  "It's going to be a lot of work."

Dr. Miller is the academic lead for the Integrated Photonics Sensor Division of the Photonics Hub.  He is confident the work can be successful because one of the technologies from his U of R lab has already been commercialized.  "I'm familiar with both the heavy lift and with the fact that you can work your way through that lift if you break it down into the right components," he said. 

Researchers at the U of R, RIT and across the country will all contribute. But patience will be needed. Clark believes it will take a couple of years for the Photonics Hub to be operational, but once it is, the future of photonics is limitless. "I do believe that we can do for Upstate New York with integrated photonics what silicon did for Silicon Valley in California," he said. 

Read the full News 8 special report, "The Future of Photonics" here.