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[infowar.de] NYT 11.11.02: Photonic Crystals In Uniforms
New York Times November 11, 2002
Photonic Crystals In Uniforms
By Teresa Riordan
THESE may be lean economic times, but there is brisk demand for scientists
who work on military projects.
One project is the $50 million contract the Defense Department gave earlier
this year to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The
goal is to build a sort of exoskeleton that among other things is supposed
to give soldiers superhuman strength, protect them from biological and
chemical weapons, and even help heal their injuries.
One of the researchers on the case is Yoel Fink, an assistant professor at
M.I.T. Using, in part, technology he created, Mr. Fink and his team aim to
embroider the supersoldier fighting uniform with polymer threads that by
selectively reflecting or absorbing different wavelengths of light would
silently flash an optical bar code. That way, for example, troops wearing
specially tuned night-vision goggles would be able to distinguish between
foe and friend during a night firefight.
The supersoldier project, officially known as the Institute for Soldier
Nanotechnologies, has special meaning for Mr. Fink, who grew up in Israel
and served in the army there.
"I spent three years of my life in the infantry," said Mr. Fink, who is now
36 years old. "It absolutely hits close to home because I know how
vulnerable infantry soldiers are."
If two recently issued patents are any indication, though, Mr. Fink's
ambitions extend beyond the battlefield.
Last month, Mr. Fink and several colleagues were granted United States
Patent 6,463,200 for a fiber that steers light beams efficiently over long
distances. The technology is being developed by OmniGuide, a start-up in
Cambridge, Mass., that Mr. Fink co-founded and that recently secured $10
million in a second round of financing.
In August Mr. Fink received a more fundamental patent, Number 6,433,931,
which broadly covers the use of certain polymers as photonic crystals an
innovation that Mr. Fink hopes will one day revolutionize optics the way
the semiconductor revolutionized electronics.
As a tenure-track researcher at M.I.T. whose ideas are the foundation of a
start-up company, Mr. Fink now seems a rising star. But when he first
arrived at M.I.T. as a graduate student in 1995, he spent nearly a year and
a half casting about for a project and a thesis adviser.
John D. Joannopoulos, a solid-state physicist at M.I.T. and expert on
photonic crystals, did not take Mr. Fink into his laboratory. "He basically
told me, `Look, I don't have any positions available,' " Mr. Fink said.
So when Mr. Fink came up with what he considered a revolutionary idea for
building photonic crystals, he instead approached Edwin Thomas, a respected
materials scientist at M.I.T. "I went to see him and said, `I want to
talk,' " Mr. Fink recalled. Mr. Thomas said he could not talk because he
was on his way to Greece.
Undaunted, Mr. Fink gave Mr. Thomas a copy of Professor Joannopoulos's
book, to which Mr. Fink had stuck a yellow sticky note pithily outlining
his idea. When he returned Mr. Thomas called Mr. Fink, eager to start
working on the idea. Within a few weeks Mr. Fink had financing from the Air
Force to pursue it.
For three months, Mr. Fink, Mr. Thomas and Tim Oyer, an M.I.T. patent
lawyer, feverishly laid out a road map for developing the crystal. "We
wanted to do with photons what people have been doing for years with
electrons to manipulate the flow of light in materials," he said.
Photons are the smallest known units of light, with both particle and wave
properties. Photonic crystals allow for the manipulation of light.
Mr. Fink was by no means the only researcher trying to produce photonic
crystals. "What struck me was that there wasn't a very good way to build
these crystals," he said. "People were trying to build these structures by
modifying semiconductor techniques."
While other researchers were trying to create photonic crystals by etching
into silicon, Mr. Fink proposed a radically different idea: making a
photonic crystal out of plastic.
The plastic he wanted to use was something called a block co-polymer,
essentially a plastic made from two different types of polymers. Imagine
one polymer as a string of pearls and the other polymer as a string of
rubies, both of them loosely strung. Now imagine that when they are dropped
into a jar and shaken, they self-entwine and pack themselves into a
structure that repeats itself in a specific pattern say, two rubies, four
pearls, two rubies, four pearls and so on. "This a structure that forms
itself," Mr. Fink said. "It doesn't require complicated processing."
In part it is this pattern, as well as the differing reflective qualities
of the "rubies" and the "pearls," that gives this crystal such potential,
Mr. Fink said.
Off the battlefield, how might life be different in the future if photonic
crystals came to pass? Fashion mavens might leave the house in a turquoise
outfit in the morning and retune the same outfit to tangerine when they
went out to dinner. Optical communications systems might someday be woven
into our clothing, making cellphones and hand-held devices seem like quaint
artifacts of the early 21st century. And the innards of computers might
rely as much on optics as on electronics.
Professor Fink has since won over Professor Joannopoulos, who ultimately
became his thesis adviser and whom he now considers a mentor. But he
acknowledged that though it had been proved experimentally, his
self-assembling plastic photonic crystal project was still a long way from
"It's a very beautiful idea," Mr. Fink said. "What's keeping us from flying
with it right now is that we need a clever chemist which I am not to
synthesize the polymer."
Mr. Fink says the first application to come out of his research is likely
to be a light-transmitting fiber for a highly secure military
communications network for the military. The main patron for his research,
after all, is the Defense Department.
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