Canadian universities focus on photonics to develop switches, tools

Two Canadian universities have announced research initiatives related to the development of photonics-related products.

McGill University, which is part of the Agile All-Photonics research network, recently added Telus Corp. to its roster of five private sector partners. The addition, says David

Plant, scientific director of AAPN and James McGill professor of electrical and computer engineering, provides the AAPN a piece of the puzzle that had been missing since startup in January 2003.

“”What they (Telus) provide is a view into services they feel they’ll have to deploy to their customers both in the immediate future and deep into the future,”” says Plant. “”When you have a sense of what services the end user will want — the personal, business or government user — it helps you construct an agile network; it influences the traffic models we would develop and that we would run on our network in simulation.””

Moving edge-wise

The AAPN, which comprises five Canadian universities (McGill, University of Ottawa, Queen’s, the University of Toronto and McMaster), was launched with a $7 million Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant. The five-year project aims to develop an efficient all-photonic switch, which will enable networks to avoid the current process of converting light streams to electrical signals for processing and routing.

According to Plant, the AAPN is working on developing edge nodes, which would connect to a transparent optical network with a photonic core.

“”By doing lot of time division multiplexing on a wavelength we can get the photons closer to the actual user, which could be a business premise or a government premise,”” says Plant. “”The edge ultimately could be at the interface to the access network, so that could be wireless phones, DSL or cable,”” for example.

Ultimately, he says, the goal is to develop a switch that enables users to deliver better services more cheaply. “”With the burst of the tech bubble cost pressures are enormous, so if we can find ways of reducing cost and increasing the content in what can be delivered, the end user will benefit,”” he says.

Researchers from the University of Western Ontario, McMaster and the University of Waterloo have formed the Ontario Photonics Consortium in order to maximize use of the facility.

At this point, the AAPN has moved past formulating the problems that exist in developing an agile network to formulating the solutions, says Plant.

The initiative is also connected to the National Microelectronics and Photonics Testing Collaboratory, a pan-Canadian virtual lab that uses the Internet to link Canadian researchers to complex microchip testing equipment.

“”One of our stated goals is to do demonstration work,”” says Plant, “”and we would envision using the collaboratory to help support those demos.””

UWO, meanwhile, recently opened a $23 million nanofabrication lab also focused on photonics, with the goal of developing smaller photonic components with lower power use and greater power, that will benefit the telecommunications and IT sectors. It is also expected to benefit the pharmaceutical industry by providing new ways to administer drugs.

Focusing on photonics

Principal investigator Ian Mitchell says the lab is focused on fundamental studies in materials science, such as materials synthesis.

“”There are some very interesting ideas on the sorts of probes and probe performance needed for doing new kinds of work, so we see some of the tools and skills that will be developed in this lab as assisting in that way,”” says Mitchell.

“”One thing that is to be emphasized is photonics – meaning the use of light – that is no question a central theme on which we will be centring much of our activities.””

Some of the products that could come out of the research include nanoprobes – mechanical devices with extremely tiny tips.

“”What we’re interested in developing is greater power for these and a range of functions right down at the working tip,”” says Mitchell. “”These might be for picking samples of very, very small volumes of liquid, which might contain molecules of interest, and they would also include tips that are used to measure the force between the tip and some surface of interest.””

The lab is stocked with equipment Nortel donated from one of its research and development labs, as well as specialized equipment the lab bought with some of the funding it received from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

“”The set of tools we chose to go with represents a bit of an unusual choice compared to where other people tend to put their money, but it was because we had particular research in mind, not just to be unique for the sake of it,”” says Mitchell.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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