Lighting the future

Scientists from Brazil and the US discuss research advances and challenges for the development of quantum computers, optical chips and high-speed data transmission.

"Optics and Photonics" was the topic of the first session of FAPESP Week, which began Monday (10/24) in Washington, DC. Held just after the opening of the symposium, the session brought together the scientists Hugo Fragnito and Carlos Lens Cesar from the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), Paulo Nussenzveig and Vanderlei Bagnato from the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), and Michal Lipson from Cornell University.

One of the main pledges presented in the event is the fabrication of computers that are much faster than current ones. Lipson, Associate Professor at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University, has spent the last decade studying silicon photonics, which uses protons in the place of electrons in data transmission. In other words, moving from electrical technology to photonic technology.

She noted, "And this without having to change the type of electronic circuits made of silicon that are currently in use. We want to continue to use silicon, but for optical transmission, which we believe will lead to much higher speeds than what we currently have, and offer huge scientific and technological potential."

The scientist, who lived in Brazil until age 19 (the daughter of Reuven Opher, Full Professor at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences of the Universidade de São Paulo (IAG-USP)) pioneered the study of the possible construction of computers with photonic components.

She says, "But silicon photonics is very close to becoming a reality in technologies available to the public. Several companies in the computer industry such as Intel and IBM are developing products based on a combination of silicon and optics.”

Lipson mentions that it is particularly important in a new field of research to establish cooperation among groups located in various countries. The scientist, who has several Brazilian students on her team at Cornell University, also actively collaborates with researchers in Brazil, among them, several of the other speakers in this FAPESP Week session.

The importance of collaborative research was also underscored by Nussenzveig, who will also be in Lipson’s Cornell group in 2012. Professor of Experimental Physics at the Physics Institute of USP, Nussenzveig’s first lecture addressed multicolor quantum entanglement.

Quantum entanglement is considered a basis for future technologies in quantum physics, quantum cryptography and quantum teleportation. As an intrinsic phenomenon of quantum mechanics, the entanglement allows two or more particles to share their properties even without a physical connection between them.

The group led by Nussenzveig demonstrated the entanglement in three colors of lights, indicating the path to developing future quantum networks. The research was published by Science magazine in November 2009.

According to the scientist, the entanglement is a fundamental quantum resource for accelerating the processing of information or sophisticated communication protocols.

"We expect quantum information networks to move information from one place to another by means of entangled light beams. We demonstrate the entanglement using three different light beams in distinct waves," he noted. "Quantum computation offers great promise for the future."

Fragnito is Director of the Optics and Photonics Research Center at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (CePOF, a Center for Research, Innovation and Diffusion (CEPID) of FAPESP, and Coordinator of the National Institute of Photonics Science and Technology for Optical Communication (INCT-CNPq).

The physicist briefly described the organization he directs at Unicamp and some of the research being done there, including the development of super high-speed fiber optic data transmission, the nanotechnology fabrication of semiconductor devices, and the study of the physical phenomena involved in optical communication.

Studies are being conducted at CePOF in Campinas, one of the world’s leading research centers in the field, located at Unicamp (and the subject of praise by Lipson in her lecture) into the fabrication of new fiber optics made of various materials such as special plastics and photonic crystals.

Fragnito also emphasized the relationship between the coordinating center and private initiative. The center, which produced 25 patents and generated two spin-offs, has signed agreements with companies that total over US$4 million.

In terms of scientific production, the research conducted there has already resulted in nearly 160 theses and over 700 published with a total of over 4,000 citations.

The lecture by Lenz Cesar, Professor at the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute at Unicamp, was about a platform in multimodal optical microscopy for the study of cell processes.

He said, "Biology occurs not in two, but rather in three dimensions, and that is why we need to understand the biological structures three-dimensionally."

The researcher spoke about advanced microscopy techniques for the study of cells, such as those in tumors, and also in disease-causing micro-organisms in humans, among them Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas Disease.

By using the microscopy techniques by the group coordinated by Lenz Cesar, it is possible to visualize and understand the structures in a way not previously available. He said, "Our objective is to do biochemistry in real time at the cell level."

Bagnato, Coordinator of the Center for Research in Optics and Photonics (CePOF) of São Carlos, spoke about the phenomenon of turbulence in quantum fluids. Little known by science, the phenomenon is one of the main research objectives of Bagnato’s group.

The scientist also emphasized the importance of publishing the results of the studies carried out at universities and research centers. The CePOF of São Carlos, established on that city’s USP campus, is recognized for the important job of scientific publishing it performs. He states, "We want to make science available to everyone, in an exciting way."

Sponsored by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Ohio State University, together with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, FAPESP Week events continue in Washington through October 26.