Engineering Inside:

2016 Issue 1
Light

Meet David V. Plant!

February 2016

david v plantDavid V. Plant is the James McGill Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at McGill University where he has been since 1993. He received his B.Sc., with honors, M.Sc., and Ph.D. from Brown University in 1985, 1986, and 1989, respectively. He was a Research Engineer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), before moving to McGill University.

To date, he has received several national and international awards and he has been recognized with Fellow status in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Optical Society of America (OSA), the Canadian Academy of Engineering (CAE), and the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC) for his efforts.  In addition he recently held a two year long Killam Research Fellowship from the Canada Council for the Arts. Amongst his many volunteer roles in the IEEE Photonics Society he was an elected member of the Board of Governors, and the Vice President of Conferences. He currently serves as Vice President of Technical Affairs. He was recently awarded the Distinguished Service Award. His current research interests includes silicon photonics, optical interconnects, photonic integration, nanophotonics, and coherent optical fiber communications.  He has published more than 400 journal and conference papers, two book chapters, and has one licensed patent.

1. Why did you choose to study the engineering field?
Early in my studies I enjoyed math, physics, and chemistry. I was also an active hobbyist. I really enjoyed building wooden and plastic models of cars, boats, and planes. Later, I spent a great deal of time repairing my cars which were constantly breaking — and because I had no money I had to fix them myself! When it came time to decide what subject to purse as an undergraduate student, engineering — and in particular electrical engineering — was a very natural fit.

2. What do you love about engineering?
I really enjoy problem solving! In particular, I love working on new technologies that will significantly improve the performance of a product or system. Recently, we have had a great deal of success building silicon photonic transceivers for use in data centers. Google, Amazon, and Facebook, are building warehouse-scale data centers that have enormous connectivity requirements. At present silicon photonic based technologies are capable of meeting these emerging demands.

3. How did you first get involved with photonics?  Share a project or inspiration with us please that prompted your involvement…
While an undergraduate student, my supervisor showed me a CO2 laser that could burn through paper. I found the laser to be a fascinating device and then spent time in a laser physics laboratory learning more about how lasers work. I have been hooked on photonics ever since.

threeshots

The Silicon Electronic-Photonic Integrated Circuits (Si-EPIC) technologies are becoming extremely important in for future computing, communications, and sensing applications. A Si-EPIC device is shown in the bottom left at the chip level, and packaged in the bottom right. In the top figure Prof. Plant discusses with his students Si-EPIC chip testing strategies.

4. Can you explain a little about Silicon Electronic-Photonic Integrated Circuits (Si-EPIC) and how they might impact everyday products or the world in general?
The Silicon Electronic-Photonic Integrated Circuits (Si-EPIC) technology platform describes the integration of photonic and electronic components. For example, a laser can be attached to a microprocessor in order to perform more complicated functions than the microprocessor can do on its own. Today’s smart phones have many integrated devices including cameras, flashlights, and positioning sensors that are possible because there is a mix of electrical and photonic components. And highly functional photonic integrated circuits can be used across many applications, including communications, computing, and sensing.

5. Is there a particular application or industry that you think could benefit the most from developments in photonics in the future? 
I believe that photonics will be very important in future optical interconnect applications. As noted above, data center operators continue to build bigger and more powerful installations, which is creating a very strong pull on photonic technologies to enable higher performance. I also think that smart phones will continue to use more photonics in order to build better devices.

6. What are the current challenges in the field of photonics?  What’s the biggest obstacle at the moment?
Moving photonics technologies into the mainstream will be important. At present a great deal of photonic technologies are used in specific application areas. This is likely to change as the cost of the technology is reduced and the reliability improves. In particular, the cost of key enabling devices including lasers, detectors, and optics must drop to become competitive with electronics. Once the same economies of scale have been reached I believe photonic devices will become as commonplace and electronic devices have become.

7. Whom do you admire and why?
My late Father was my hero. He was an electrical engineer too and he was an avid Amateur Radio (ham radio) user. He could use is ham radio to talk across town, around the world, or even into space — all without the Internet or cell phones! I recall sitting with him while he spent hours building and using his radios. I even remember his call sign: VE7BYW. He was active in several large (e.g. Western Digital, Memorex) and small (e.g. Speech Plus) companies during his career at the executive level. He was always very much a technology leader. In my career, I aspire to being a technology leader much the way my Dad was.

091027-141151-3635 (1)

Dr. David Plant in his lab studying fiber optic transmission and silicon-photonics. His research addresses the need for higher speed data transmission at every Internet relevant length scale, from long haul inter-city links to very short inter-chip links.

8. How has the engineering field changed since you’ve started?
The level of complexity of the problems that need to be solved has grown significantly. High impact engineering work across all disciplines now requires teams of people all working towards a common goal. Successful engineers must be not only technically proficient but also effective communicators.

9. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned through your work in photonics?
Photonics technologies are very young. I anticipate significant growth over the next several years. For those who are curious about the basic and applied nature of light, the field of photonics is a marvelous domain that is very rich technically and has a great deal of potential in the future.

10. What advice would you give to recent graduates interested in working in photonics?
Find something you enjoy and pursue it.

11. If you weren’t in the engineering field, what would you be doing?
I would be a full-time Dad!

Related Online Resources:

http://www.photonics.ece.mcgill.ca/  McGill Photonics Systems Group

http://www.photonicssociety.org/  IEEE Photonics Society

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