Q&A With College of Optical Sciences Dean Thomas Koch

Q&A With College of Optical Sciences Dean Thomas Koch

By Nick PrevenasUniversity Relations - Communications
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Thomas Koch
Thomas Koch

Vice President Joe Biden announced last week that the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics, of which the UA is part, was selected by the Department of Defense to receive $110 million in federal funding to develop cutting-edge methods to more quickly and securely deliver data. For UA College of Optical Sciences Dean Thomas Koch, this announcement is the first step toward the development of new technology that will revolutionize communication and business.

Over the last 18 months, Koch helped to establish both the technical concepts and the academic, industry and government partnerships to realize the prodigious manufacturing capabilities that the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics, or AIM Photonics, will represent.

The primary AIM Photonics team, led by SUNY Polytechnic Institute in New York, includes faculty from the UA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California Santa Barbara, University of Rochester and industry partners such as Intel, HP, IBM, Cisco, Infinera, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman. Overall, there are more than a dozen other prestigious universities and 50 large and small companies participating in the consortium.

This partnership will create data transportation systems via optical waveguides and microscopic lasers to replace the current copper-wiring platform. The new technology will reduce the size of optic systems, increase the speed of data transfer and create the foundation for new industry and manufacturing.

Lo Que Pasa talked with Koch about the partnership.

What will be the UA's role with AIM Photonics?

The College of Optical Sciences will have three roles within AIM Photonics.

The first is in technology development. The National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) program is aimed at advancing U.S. manufacturing technology, so it is not fundamental "blue sky" research. Rather, we will be working closely with commercial partners to transition research technologies into production. The College of Optical Sciences has a very strong history of working with commercial companies and we expect the enterprise to benefit from this experience. One area of technical focus will be advancing technologies to get light on and off the Photonic Integrated Circuits (PICs) that AIM Photonics will be developing. This is typically done with optical fibers, but we intend to develop polymer waveguide connections that may be more amenable to high-volume production.

The second role is in education and workforce development. This is an important component of AIM Photonics; to have robust manufacturing capabilities, the U.S. must also have an educated workforce that understands PIC technologies. This will be an activity shared among several of the AIM Photonics partners with a goal to facilitate some regional focus. There will be enhancements to our curriculum, as well as training modules for our corporate partners to teach people how to take advantage of the PIC technology using advanced Computer Aided Design (CAD) tools that are used routinely in electronic integrated circuits, but not yet standardized for photonics.

The third role is in leadership within AIM Photonics. I will be serving as the chair of the Technology Review Board, which oversees the portfolio of funded projects within AIM Photonics, responsible to make recommendations that ensure the success of the enterprise.

The foundation of this field of study is responsible for some major technological breakthroughs that have shaped the way the Internet impacts day-to-day life. What kinds of breakthroughs are possible through a collaboration of this scale?

Today, every company that is investing strongly in this field has to develop their own solutions, all the way from chip design to fabrication steps to packaging of the modules. This is very inefficient and precludes that maturation of the industry. AIM Photonics provides a vehicle for companies to cooperatively partition expertise in the different areas required to make successful products, much in the same way that the electronics industry has evolved. We call this the development of the "ecosystem" around PIC technology.

An additional technical advance is that we will be providing a high level of integration between photonics and electronics using 3-D chip stacking technologies.

Finally, AIM Photonics will offer these capabilities in a "foundry" format, where users can use CAD tools, or Electronic and Photonic Design Automation tools, to create new chip-scale solutions, simulate them accurately, and then submit the jobs to the foundry. They will get chips back, including packaging, according to their needs.

We anticipate that this will not only accelerate the progress that PIC technology has enjoyed in the Internet, but will allow other application areas to leverage the investments into new markets. This will include a broad set of sensors for biomedical, environmental, consumer and defense applications, as well as highly specialized signal processing for radar and other applications more specific to defense.

What does this partnership mean for the UA optics program going forward?

In addition to the direct funding, it provides a venue for our continued engagement with both companies and the best academic partners in the world working in this important and rapidly advancing technology. We expect this to result in more research opportunities, and it will certainly keep us on the cutting edge.

What kinds of opportunities will this partnership provide for UA students?

Both the research opportunities and the education and workforce development activities will directly benefit students. They will be deeply involved in advancing the technology, and those who are interested will have unparalleled opportunities to become fluent in the design and manufacturing of the most sophisticated PIC solutions in the world. This will make them very attractive to future employers, whether that is in the private sector or the academic community.

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