News Feature | February 15, 2023

Bright Ideas — A New Path Toward Quantum Light, 3D Lidar Could Make For Safer Autonomous Driving, Reprogrammable Photonic Microchips Shipped, And More

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor


Bright Ideas presents the most captivating news and innovations in optics and photonics. This week, a look back at Photonics Best … err … West, Wits U researchers find distortion-free forms of structured light, how photonics can help keep it green, and more.

University of Cambridge researchers, along with colleagues from the US, Israel, and Austria, announced a theory describing a new state of light that has controllable quantum properties over a broad range of frequencies, up as high as X-ray frequencies. The hope is this will help engineers create and utilize light whose quantum properties are controlled over a broad range of frequencies more easily. Lead author Dr. Andrea Pizzi worked with Ido Kaminer’s group at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Vienna to develop a theory that predicts a new way of controlling the quantum nature of light. “Quantum fluctuations make quantum light harder to study, but also more interesting: if correctly engineered, quantum fluctuations can be a resource,” said Pizzi. “Controlling the state of quantum light could enable new techniques in microscopy and quantum computation.”

Did you attend Photonics West earlier this month? Did you think it was … bigger? Welp, you’re not wrong. “The biggest annual optics and photonics event of the year hosted over 1,400 exhibitors, 4,500-plus presentations, and an expanded Quantum West conference,” SPIE announced. “There were more than 22,000 registered attendees from 85 countries across the international optics and photonics community.” SPIE CEO Kent Rochford said, “That was one of the best SPIE Photonics Wests ever. The energy, engagement, and enthusiasm at the Moscone Center during the week were out of this world. AR|VR|MR over at Moscone West was a hive of activity, and the Quantum West program has become a must-attend event. But most of all, it was wonderful to see the networking, research-sharing, and business that went on all week among world-leading scientists, engineers, students, and businesspeople. What a great return to Photonics West.” SPIE Photonics West 2024 will take place from January 27 through February 1 February at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The call for papers for the 2024 event will open in the Spring of 2023.

According to Optica, a unique, chip-based light source allows scanning lidar to be combined with 3D flash lidar which has the potential to make autonomous driving safer. The new system represents the first time that the capabilities of conventional beam-scanning lidar systems have been combined with those of a newer 3D approach known as flash lidar. Optica writes that investigators led by Susumu Noda from Kyoto University in Japan also show that the system can be used to measure the distance of poorly reflective objects and automatically track the motion of these objects. “With our lidar system, robots and vehicles will be able to reliably and safely navigate dynamic environments without losing sight of poorly reflective objects such as black metallic cars,” said Noda. “Incorporating this technology into cars, for example, would make autonomous driving safer.”

Researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) in South Africa have shown how it is possible to find distortion-free forms of light that come out of a noisy channel exactly the same as they were put in. Using atmospheric turbulence as an example, they showed that these special forms of light, called eigenmodes, can be found for even very complex channels, emerging undistorted, while other forms of structured light would be unrecognizable. “Passing light through the atmosphere is crucial in many applications, such as free-space optics, sensing, and energy delivery, but finding how best to do this has proved challenging,” said Professor Andrew Forbes, head of the Structured Light Laboratory at Wits University. Maintaining the integrity of structured light in complex media will pave the way to future work in imaging and communicating through noisy channels, particularly relevant when the structured forms of light are fragile quantum states.

iPronics announced it has delivered initial shipments of programmable photonic microchips to several companies in distinct sectors. A photonic microchip uses up to 10 times less power and can be 20 times faster than electrical chips while processing far more information. The new product has many applications throughout emerging markets and technologies, including 5G/6G signal processing, data centers, machine learning, AI, and computing. The programmable nature of this technology unlocks novel commercial applications as it allows the generation of optical functionalities in software, which critically reduces time to market and total costs for system design, prototyping, and production.

Finally, photonics labeling is helping to make recycling simpler, according to AZoOptics. Researchers at the University of Michigan (go Wolverines!) have created woven-in labels made of low-cost photonic fibers that will simplify sorting of the more than 90 million tons of clothing and other textiles disposed of yearly. Currently, only 15% of that 90 million tons are being recycled. The tags are “ like a barcode that’s woven directly into the fabric of a garment,” said Max Shtein, Study Corresponding Author and Professor, Materials Science and Engineering, at the University of Michigan. “We can customize the photonic properties of the fibers to make them visible to the naked eye, readable only under near-infrared light or any combination.” Near-infrared sorting systems are already used by recyclers to identify different materials based on their naturally occurring optical signatures—for example, the PET plastic in a water bottle looks completely different under near-infrared light than the HDPE plastic in a milk jug. The technology was created by combining Brian Iezzi (a postdoctoral researcher) and Shtein’s photonic expertise (typically used in products such as displays, solar cells, and optical filters) with the sophisticated textile capabilities at MIT’s Lincoln Lab. The lab acted to integrate the photonic properties into a process that could be mass-produced on a large scale.