Innovative radio frequency photonics research opens up a high-tech future for the SouthCoast

Exploring technologies that integrate electronics, photonics, and nanofabrications

Dr. Yifei Li - RF Photonics Lab - Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr. Li, right, works with a student in the RF Photonics lab.

Waveguide lasers. Phase/density modulators. High-power/high-speed photodetectors. Photonic integrated circuits.

These are some of the tiny—ranging from 0.5 mm to 5mm long in size—but tremendously powerful devices designed at UMass Dartmouth’s Radio Frequency (RF) Photonics Lab: devices that harness the power of light and electromagnetic waves to work in fields such as telecommunications and defense.

RF Photonics Lab - examples of devices
Devices from the RF Photonics lab. Top, left to right: narrow linewidth tunable LiNbO3 waveguide lasers, thin film LiNbO3 phase/intensity modulators, high power/high speed photodetector, MQW phase/intensity modulators. Middle: frequency down-convertor photonic integrated circuit (left), high power/high speed photodetector. Bottom: ACP-OPLL photonic integrated circuit.

Led by director Dr. Yifei Li of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, the lab’s mission is to explore innovative technologies that integrate radio frequency electronics, photonics, and advanced nanofabrications.

With a focus on integrated microwave/photonic devices and microsystems, the lab’s engineers and scientists—including student researchers—investigate new device, system architecture, and advanced integration technologies.

Seamless technology integration

"Our unique strength is in our rare capability for seamless technology integration between radio frequency electronics, photonics, and advanced nanofabrications," said Li.

"Very few research labs, even among those at top-ranked national universities, possess such technological know-how."

The RF Photonics Lab has designed, fabricated, and characterized high-performance photodetectors, optical modulators, narrow linewidth tunable lasers, and various RF photonic integrated circuit chips for radar front end and microwave signal processing applications.

Li noted that "some of these devices and integrated circuits hold the current records for performance."

RF Photonics Lab - microscopic view
Microscopic view of a multi-quantum well optical intensity modulator.

Success in highly competitive federal funding

Because of its unique capabilities and the strong relevance of its research, the RF Photonics Lab has been extensively funded by a number of government agencies, including DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Naval Research Laboratory, the Office of Naval Research, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

The lab has garnered more than $2.8 million in highly competitive federal funding since its founding in 2007.

Most recently, the Naval Underwater Warfare Center (NUWC) in Newport, RI has expressed interest in the lab’s work on technologies for a compact highly linear optical modulator, a wideband photodetector, and RF photonic integrated circuits. NUWC is considering introducing the devices into its new generation of fiber-optic-fed submarine radar systems. Through the educational partnership agreement between NUWC and UMassD, NUWC has provided state-of-the-art RF photonic instruments to the lab, with an eye toward potential work related to ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) and workforce development for the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense.

RF Photonics Lab - machine close-up
A self-mode-locked laser for generating low noise microwave signals.

Opportunities for the SouthCoast

"We plan to work with our colleagues at NUWC to establish a new state-of-the-art center of excellence for radio frequency photonic devices and integrated systems," said Li. "We believe this represents an opportunity to attract funding and create sustainable high-tech jobs for the SouthCoast region."

The SouthCoast region, Li said, is still struggling to find its own high-tech niche, unlike the greater Boston area, which has had success in a number of high-tech fields.

"We believe RF photonics could be the pivot of a regional high-tech economy, due to the strength of our RF photonic research, our proximity to a major Navy facility, the highly interdisciplinary nature of RF photonics, and the absence of competition from other nearby regions in this critical field," he added.

The proposed center would immediately address the real and urgent need of the Navy in the area of RF photonics research and development—and could help attract substantial federal and state funding to the SouthCoast. It would also be instrumental in training the current and the next generation of Navy engineers and scientists working in this critical field.

Poised for the next telecom boom

The center could also help push RF photonic technologies closer to commercialization for the booming telecom industry.

Li explained that as global Internet provider (IP) traffic increases (it’s expected to triple from 2014 to 2019), the backbone optical communication links will have to reduce cost, increase bandwidth, and rely on higher order modulation schemes. The integrated, compact, high-speed, high-linearity optical modulation and detection solutions developed by the RF Photonics Lab would ideally fit these requirements.

Startup companies focused around RF photonics technologies would then be able to create a sustainable high-tech ecosystem, encompassing UMass Dartmouth, defense agencies, and private industries.

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