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Past Winner
2008 NSERC Howard Alper Postdoctoral Prize

Kenneth Chau

Electrical Engineering

University of Alberta

Kenneth Chau
Kenneth Chau

Microchip designers have run into a brick wall. In their pursuit of the ability to produce ever-smaller, ever faster units, the minute circuitry required of their devices has become increasingly difficult to build. Kenneth Chau thinks the answer lies not in smaller wiring, but in harnessing light energy.

Specifically, Dr. Chau, who was awarded the Howard Alper Postdoctoral Prize for his proposed research, is looking to “surface plasmon polariton” (SPP) waves. Thanks to the fact that everything – including light – behaves differently at the nano-scale, these electromagnetically-charged waves are generated when a beam of light is directed at a specially engineered surface. The SPP waves have the same frequency as the light being shone on the surface, but with a compressed wavelength.

This shorter wavelength effectively squeezes electromagnetic energy into a smaller space on the surface of the metal than it would normally require. Dr. Chau’s research examines the potential of near-infrared and short-wavelength near-infrared frequencies, which are already commonly used in telecommunications, but without the benefit of SPP compression. Incorporating SPP into chip design could yield a smaller microchip that is able to transmit information faster.

In order for this development to find widespread use, Dr. Chau notes that it must be both cost-effective and compatible with current silicon-based technology. Reaching that goal involves creating a unit that integrates a light source, a “waveguide,” to direct the flow of SPPs across the chip, and a light detector. So far, three separate devices have been required to generate and detect SPP waves.

Dr. Chau’s work could help chip designers achieve the next breakthrough in their field: a nanoscale device measuring only a billionth of a millimeter in size, and all thanks to playing tricks with light. Previous work on transmitting electromagnetic energy in metals earned him an André Hamer Postgraduate Prize in 2005.