Feb 26, 2001

Fire Photon Torpedoes!

A NASA alliance with minority colleges and universities is working to create futuristic computers that operate using particles of light.


Marshall Space Flight Center

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Dr. Donald Frazier monitors a blue laser light
February 27, 2001 -- Scientists at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and a group of colleges and universities are running together in a race. The prize is nothing less than a new generation of computers that operate at astonishing speeds. Using photons to do their work, these optical computers would shatter the speed limits of today's computing devices.

Since1994, NASA has funded the Alliance for Non-Linear Optics (ANLO), consisting of NASA researchers plus scientists and students from a half-dozen minority universities and colleges. Each of ANLO's member institutions brings something unique to the problem of super-fast computing. Some have expertise in theoretical chemistry, for example, while others grow crystals and thin films that form the heart of new-fangled electro-optical devices. Working together these universities and NASA are making great progress in the quest for the next generation of computers.

Above: Dr. Donald Frazier monitors a blue laser light used with electro-optical materials


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Even before the Alliance was formed, two NASA/MSFC scientists, Drs. Donald Frazier and Benjamin Penn, had already brought together ANLO's original five universities to assist them in their nonlinear optical research.

"Knowing these colleges' areas of expertise was really serendipitous," said Dr. Penn. "We saw great potential for research collaboration and education. An alliance would bring disciplines together, and also interest bright students in the future development of non-linear optics."

The group's proposal to create ANLO was written by Dr. Ronald Clark, then an organic chemist and senior professor at New Mexico Highlands University. It was funded through NASA's Institutional Research Awards (IRA) program for Minority Universities (NASA-IRA Grant NAG 5-6532). The initial 1994 grant was renewed in 2000 for another three years.

The pressing need for optical technology stems from the fact that today's computers are limited by the time response of electronic circuits. A solid transmission medium limits both the speed and volume of signals, and builds up heat that damages components. Extreme miniaturization of tiny electronic components also leads to "cross-talk" -- signal errors that affect the system's reliability.

These and other obstacles have led scientists to seek answers in light itself. Light doesn't have the time response limitations of electronics, doesn't need insulators, and can even send dozens or hundreds of photon signal streams simultaneously using different color frequencies.

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Left: Blue and red lasers reflecting off mirrors -- a glimpse of things to come in computing technology? Photo Credit: Department of Energy/Coherent Inc Laser Group.

By replacing electrons and wires with photons, fiber optics, crystals, thin films and mirrors, researchers hope to build a new generation of computers that work a hundred million times faster than today's machines.

"Optical computers can vastly expand data processing and networking speeds into trillions of bits per second, rev up the Internet by more than ten times today's velocity, store thousands of times more data than is now possible -- and do it all with devices and systems that are smaller, cheaper and more reliable than anything we now have!" says Dr. Frazier.

To make it happen, researchers must master two rapidly evolving branches of technology: photonics and non-linear optics (or NLO). Photonics is the control of photons in free space or matter -- just as electronics is the control of electrons. Non-linear optics are the materials and devices that allow processing of photonic signals, much as transistors are the basis for signal processing in electronics.

NLO processes provide key photonic functions such as frequency conversion and modulation, amplification and emission, optical switching and more for photonic devices and systems that process, display and store information and images.

Diversity Produces Synergy

"ANLO's primary goal has been to develop research capability in non-linear optics as pure science, with strong student involvement," said Dr. Frazier. "Each member of the alliance contributes an essential expertise to the mix, producing synergistic results."

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For example: Spelman College in Atlanta has expertise in theoretical chemistry, while New Mexico Highlands University works in organic chemistry and optical devices. The University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez and Alabama A&M University have skills in crystal growth, formation of thin films, and optical devices. Grambling State University and the University of Texas at El Paso do research in polymer chemistry and fibers, and electro-optical devices. The University of Alabama at Huntsville focuses on characterization of non-linear optical materials.

Right: Spelman College undergraduate student Celeste Roney prepares films for nonlinear optical measurements.

Thus, Spelman College and Grambling State can identify new compounds with good NLO properties, then New Mexico Highlands and Grambling State can synthesize the new materials. The University of Alabama at Huntsville can test and characterize the materials' actual NLO properties -- and the University of Texas at El Paso uses these materials in polymer optical fibers. Alabama A&M and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez can use the synthesized materials to make crystals and thin films for non-linear optical devices. Other investigators at Alabama A&M University can fabricate prototype devices.

Five Years Into The Race

"ANLO has made long strides in the race toward ultra-fast photonic devices," Frazier stated. "Accomplishments include software for molecular and crystal optical nonlinearity, synthesis of new NLO compounds and materials, development of original equipment to grow bulk crystals and organic thin films, and measuring NLO characteristics of a large number of compounds. A spatial light modulator device using Alliance-synthesized NLO materials has been fabricated and is in testing. It has been a productive five years!"

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More than 20 faculty researchers and upward of 100 science students have participated in ANLO projects. The Alliance has published more than 35 papers and 50 proceedings in scientific journals, and some 70 faculty and 40 student presentations have been made at U.S. and international meetings [more].

Left: New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU) graduate student Kyrill Suponitsky shows a molecular modeling program to undergraduate student Maurina Gonzales. Several new active thermostable NLO compounds (inset), derivatives of dicyanovinylbenzene, have been predicted and synthesized at NMHU.

This month, ANLO held its semi-annual technical review meeting in Atlanta. On the agenda are a look at its first five years of activity, its development process, and the status of current research projects.

NASA and Alliance academic researchers are pleased with ANLO's impact on the field of non-linear optics and on so many young scientists, according to Drs. Frazier and Penn.

"Non-linear optics and undergraduates are the perfect match," Penn said. "Students need time to master research techniques, and working on a discipline as futuristic as non-linear optics provides that time. The technology and the students develop together."

Drs. Frazier and Penn see the continuing progress of ANLO as a model for the formation of more collaborations between NASA and small schools -- and between students and the future.

The Alliance for Nonlinear Optics (ANLO) was established in 1994 when NASA funded this project under the Institutional Research Awards (IRAs) program. The IRAs sought to expand relationships with minority educational institutions, especially Hispanic Serving Institutions and Tribal Colleges. Thus the award was made to New Mexico Highlands University and the other Alliance members are subcontractors. The Equal Opportunity Office at NASA Headquarters under the Minority University Research Program funds this program. Ms. Bettie White is the Director of the Minority University Division at NASA Headquarters.

Participants in ANLO include Frazier and Penn's team in the Microgravity Department of the Science and Technology Directorate at NASA/MSFC -- plus faculty and students at Alabama A&M University, Grambling State University, New Mexico Highlands University, Spelman College, University of Alabama in Huntsville, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, University of Texas at El Paso and the Institute of Organoelement Compounds of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Web Links

-- NASA scientists are working to solve the need for computer speed using light itself to accelerate calculations and increase data bandwidth. Science@NASA headline story from April 2000.

Pushing the Limits of Computer Technology -- Science@NASA headline story from May 1999.

Alliance for Nonlinear Optics -- home page at New Mexico Highlands University.

Microgravity News - Winter 1995 report about the Alliance for Nonlinear Optics.

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