Q&A with Nathaniel Kinsey, Ph.D.

Studying how light interacts with materials on the nanoscale is the research focus of Nathaniel Kinsey, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

What are you working on right now?

A major focus of my research is studying how photons, the particles that transmit light, interact with each other. Actually, they don't like to! Imagine passing a green and red laser through each other. Nothing happens. But we would like to be able to control or modify light with other light. My research seeks to do this by using special materials to “stop light,” slowing it down so photons are easier to manipulate.

What do you hope to achieve by “stopping light” and controlling photons?

My hope is for us to be able to take a single photon and use it to modify the properties of another single photon. This is the ultimate control of light. Light is the fastest thing we know of, and because of this, it is extensively used in communication systems such as the fiber optic internet. However, these systems are limited in speed because they still use electronic components to make, control and detect light pulses. 

How would controlling light make a difference in people’s lives?

The internet is the backbone of our digital society and it runs on light. In 2017, the internet moved more than 1.5 trillion gigabytes of data (that’s ~200 billion gigabytes per day) and it’s predicted to triple by 2022! If we are successful in developing all-optical technologies, it would have a truly transformative impact on society including advancing low-cost telemedicine, ultra-secure quantum financial data transmission, high definition video streaming and much more – essentially enabling technology to continue to advance.

What’s the biggest challenge in trying to control photons?

The biggest challenge is that photons don’t like to sit still. Unlike electrons, which we can put in “time out” to pin them down and control them, photons are like wild horses that just keep running around. Wrangling them and stopping them is very challenging, but also critical to efficiently controlling them. 

Have there been any surprises as you have delved into this project?

Plenty! That’s what’s so great about research. One surprise has been the quick rise of quantum technologies. Photonics has plenty to contribute to this field as well. We are constantly learning more every day about how fundamental processes in nature work, and much of my research will naturally flow into this “regime of the super tiny.” Although it’s a long way from being in your cell phone, the future is quantum.

Fun Fact: I have walked on a glacier in the Alaskan Mountain Range just below Mt. Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.