Michal Lipson: Removing Bandwidth Bottlenecks With Light

Amy Biemiller
October 12, 2015

While electronics have gotten smaller, faster, and more efficient, the market for this technology has become more voracious. Micro-sized computing systems with enhanced capacity that use less power are expected. But that demand is countered by the physics of electronics: Copper wiring and circuitry have reached the physical miniaturization limits possible in conducting electricity and producing undistorted signals.

This bandwidth bottleneck is a problem that has fascinated Michal Lipson, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering, for years. Lipson, who joined Columbia Engineering in July, was convinced that nanophotonics—the science of nanoscale objects and their interaction with photons—was the key to developing high bandwidth, low power high speed and ultra-small optoelectronic components that could revolutionize telecommunications, computation, and sensing.

“I knew there had to be an answer to the limits of electronics-based technology and I wanted to apply what I knew about the physics of light to enhance the properties of silicon,” she explains.

While science has already advanced the use of light instead of electricity in moving data at high speed with low power—as in fiber optics—Lipson wanted to push further into physics, materials science, and electrical engineering to control light in order to use it to transfer information.

She found that when light interacts with nanostructures, optical, electronic, structural, thermal, and mechanical properties become deeply interdependent. She leveraged that insight to pioneer several of the critical building blocks for silicon photonics, including the GHz silicon modulator, which is crucial in manipulating and controlling light to carry high-quality data signals. Her work has refined optoelectronic and optical circuits to decrease their size, increase their efficiency, and accelerate their switching speeds.

“My research has allowed me to harness the information processing capabilities of light, allowing data to be transferred among computer chips using light,” she says. “This effectively increases the bandwidth in servers, improves data transfer speeds, and reduces complexity.”

This new technology has delivered enhanced capabilities in sensing, imaging, communications and diagnostics, and fast-forwarded advances in electrical engineering.

“I never expected that this technology would develop so fast,” says Lipson. “The field went from nothing 15 years ago to being very much in the mainstream today. I am very excited about the potential in manipulating and controlling light, in ways never before thought possible.”

Lipson was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010 for her work in photonic circuits. She developed the process to direct light through silicon chips to replace electric current. The MacArthur “Genius Award” honored her scientific creativity and significant accomplishment in her field.

Prior to joining Columbia Engineering, Lipson was the Cornell Given Foundation Professor of Engineering at Cornell University. She is a fellow of both the Optical Society of America and of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

BS, (1992) MS, and PhD (1998), Technion, Israel Institute of Technology