Levy Receives 2007 Research Award

Miguel Levy, who investigates that most ephemeral of substances, light, is the winner of Michigan Tech’s 2007 Research Award.

In nominating him, Physics Chair Ravi Pandey and MSE Chair Mark Plicta credited Levy for “pioneering contributions to the fields of magneto-photonics” with applications in industries ranging from telecommunications to entertainment.

Levy has been the sole principal investigator or co-principal investigator on $6 million in research funding since coming to Michigan Tech in 2000 and has six patents to his credit. He has authored or coauthored 80 refereed publications and in 2003 received the Mentor Award for his work with graduate students. As the Research Award winner, he will receive $2,500.

Pandey and Plicta also cited him for his overall performance at Michigan Tech. “Dr. Levy is the prototype of a university faculty member who believes in the unity of teaching and research, mentoring of students and junior colleagues, and critical thought. We cannot think of any other faculty members at Michigan Tech who are more deserving of this recognition.”

Levy, a professor in both the physics and materials science and engineering departments, has gained international recognition for his innovations in photonics, especially photonic crystals, which are used to catch and manipulate light. “The aim of my research is to make photons do interesting things,” he says. “I’m interested in both the fundamental science of photonics and in its applications.”

In particular, he is interested in trapping and manipulating light in very, very small spaces, on the order of a few microns. You can’t set a box trap for photons, but you can catch them inside crystals.

Much of Levy’s recent work has focused on magneto-photonic crystals, and his discoveries have generated a lot of attention from industry for use in optical switching and optical filtering.

He uses magneto-photonic crystals to control light in numerous practical applications, from fiber-optic communications to cinema projectors.

Photonic crystals can be made to trap polarized light. (Unlike sunlight, polarized light is composed of waves that oscillate along a single plane; imagine waves traveling down a rope you shake up and down.) Inside the crystal, the polarized light reflects back upon itself. “You can think of it as photons bouncing back and forth between two mirrors,” Levy explains.

These photon traps can change the polarization of light in the presence of a magnetic field, so that it oscillates along a different plane. (Imagine shaking that rope left and right.) Depending on the direction of the magnetic field, one can control the release of light, creating something like a high-tech dimmer switch or a one-way optical filter.

Levy’s magneto-photonic crystals are being tested in industry. Panorama Entertainment Systems is working with him to integrate these crystals in digital movie projectors that deliver superior, high-resolution images on the screen.

Some of the applications he is working on, such as optical isolators or one-way optical filters, are not new, but they are still relatively big. The smallest commercially available isolators, used to protect lasers from backscattered light, are a few millimeters across. Levy aims to micro-size isolators using photonic crystal technology. He has patented this process, and his group is the only one to integrate the magneto-photonic crystal core component on a chip.

Levy is also researching magnetically and electrically controlled optical buffers that could be used in computing to ease congestion in data transmission. “As computers become faster, electrical wire communications between chips or within a chip becomes problematic,” Levy explains. “At the device interconnects, there’s a bottleneck.” If switches and wires could be optical instead of electrical, that bottleneck could be a lot wider, and more information could pass through more quickly.

To do that, you’d have to put the brakes on the speed of light, slowing it down by a factor of hundreds or even thousands. Levy’s research group is working on slow light, which could be used to store information optically, much as computers now store information electronically.

In related work, his group is also studying piezoelectric crystals, which can be made to function as tunable optical filters, but without the magnetic field. “We’ve already demonstrated photon trapping in a piezoelectric crystal,” Levy says. “Now we are working on electric tunability.” The aim is to create an electrically controlled on-off, zero-one signal using photons.

He is also working with scientists in Russia to change the color of light using magneto-photonic crystal technology. The process, called second harmonic generation, has been around over 40 years, but not in magnetic systems. “This is one of the areas where my interest is driven mostly just by the basic science, although there are possible applications, such as a diagnostic tool for small memory devices.”

“The work we do in my research group is both experimental and theoretical,” Levy says. “I consider it very important to be able to do both.”

He credits support from his departments for some of his success. “I find it very supportive,” he said. “And there are lots of people doing extremely interesting and excellent science here.”

As for the Research Award, Levy says he was very pleased to learn he’d been selected. “The recognition is nice,” he added. “But what really drives me is the reward of the research itself.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.