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September 28, 2000

Pitt starts photonics technology program

Photonics technology can be found in the grocery store, the operating room, the office and now the classroom. A new Pitt photonics certificate program teaches students the technology behind items such as supermarket scanners, surgical lasers and CD-ROMs.

With grant support from the National Science Foundation and the Research Corporation, David Snoke, assistant professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, organized and directs the program, which began this fall.

Photonics, also known as quantum optics, is one of the fastest growing high-tech industries worldwide and is responsible for most of the communications, imaging and spectroscopy technology used today. Photonics utilizes photons, the particles that make up light, in the same way that electronics uses electrons.

Practical applications of photonics include fiber optics and laser technology, night vision devices, spy satellites and optical fingerprinting. Developments could include quantum teleportation and other quantum mechanical effects that enable the creation of unbreakable codes and ultrafast computers.

"The program is forward-looking," says Snoke. "Optics conferences urge colleges to implement this kind of program. It was my perception that a training program at Pitt would be beneficial, especially because photonics is a combination of disciplines, and few universities have unified programs in this field."

Undergraduates majoring in chemistry, physics or electrical engineering may enroll at the end of their sophomore year. Students completing the program will be awarded the certificate in photonics in addition to the bachelor of science degree.

In the new program, students will be encouraged to work in the research laboratories of physics, chemistry and engineering faculty. Snoke's current research involves the development of an "optical transistor," whereby one light beam can turn another on and off. Possible practical uses include computers and radios that use optical transistors instead of electrical transistors.

The program also will help with job placement. The May 2000 issue of Physics Today reported 3,400 job postings in the field and only 300 qualified applicants. "We anticipate that the high demand for trained individuals should make it relatively easy to find jobs," says Snoke.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 3

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