University of Rochester

Five Scientists' Work Named Best of Year by Optical Society

March 23, 2000

A microscope for molecules, an ultrafast laser gauge and better fiber optics have earned year-end kudos for several teams at the University of Rochester. Five research groups at the University's Institute of Optics were honored by the Optical Society of America for conducting outstanding research in 1999.

A team led by Professor Turan Erdogan was recognized for developing a device that will help monitor fiber optic lines much more efficiently than is done today. When telephone companies begin replacing old copper lines with fiber optic glass, they'll need to know the condition of every line, instantly. Current fiber monitors are bulky, but Erdogan's device is so tiny it can fit anywhere the fiber goes to make sure communications like telephone calls and Internet traffic remain uninterrupted.

Professor Robert Boyd was recognized for developing a device that encodes information into the light carried by a fiber more efficiently than any before. By carefully placing together layers of certain materials billionths of an inch thick, Boyd and University alumnus Robert Nelson were able to vary the direction laser light would bounce from the device, allowing them to send information along a fiber like ultra-fast Morse code.

As more and more information is carried on beams of light, scientists and engineers are seeking ways to make computer chips read the encoded information more effectively, but next-generation silicon microchips are so thin that most light passes through them without creating the needed electric currents in the chips. Dennis Hall, professor and director of The Institute of Optics, and then-graduate-student Howard Stuart, now with Bell Laboratories, were recognized for demonstrating a way to overcome this difficulty. They placed an ultrathin layer of microscopic silver particles onto the chip's surface, acting like miniature antennas by collecting the light signals and re-radiating them in a way that traps them within the silicon chip. Once trapped, the light is much more likely to produce the electrical signals needed by the chip to communicate with conventional computers.

To make sure that cutting-edge lasers perform at their best, University researchers have developed a real-time measurement tool called SPIDER. Professor Ian Walmsley, Research Associate Matthew Anderson and former graduate student Chris Iaconis created the method called Spectral Phase Interferometry for Direct Electric-field Reconstruction (SPIDER) to measure the shape and duration of the extremely brief optical pulses generated by ultrafast lasers. Such measurements can reveal the performance limits of the lasers or of fiber optical systems and guide engineers in making better ones.

Assistant Professor Lukas Novotny devised a new way for scientists to "see" individual molecules. Researchers can tell much about a substance by the way it interacts with light, but the wavelengths that make up light are often too large to detect small molecules. Detecting such small objects with ordinary light is a little bit like trying to measure the head of a pin with a yardstick. Novotny found that a pointed metal tip, when illuminated with laser light, can interact with individual molecules in a way that allows scientists to garner a "picture." Novotny believes that his new method will be especially useful in probing tiny material structures in next-generation semiconductor chips, and may soon make it possible to "see" individual protein molecules to learn how nature constructs them.