But that was just a side gig for the scientist known among his peers as the “father of photonic crystals.” These crystals — artificial structures that manipulate beams of light in the same way that silicon and other semiconductors control electric currents — function as “semiconductors of light.” Currently, electronic semiconductors are the lifeblood of computers, but photonic crystals “could lead the information and telecommunications revolution still further by enabling higher-capacity optical fibers, nanoscopic lasers and photonic-integrated circuits,” Yablonovitch explained in a 2001 Scientific American article.
The idea of photonic crystals was born in 1986 while Yablonovitch was working at Bell Communications Research in New Jersey. Seeking to make telecommunication lasers more efficient, he and a technician spent months in the lab, trying to create the first working model.
“We were overconfident ... and it didn’t work right away,” Yablonovitch recalled. “We kept trying and trying and trying, and it took four years. We finally found something with the help of some theoretical physicists.”
Today, photonic crystals have become big business, and one of the most exciting applications — using photonic crystal fibers to send a signal all the way to Japan without undersea amplifiers — could be ready in a few years, Yablonovitch said.
The engineering professor also conducts research in the areas of optoelectronics, high-speed optical communications and quantum computing, finding time to serve as co-director of UCLA’s Center for Scalable and Integrated Nano-Manufacturing and as director of the Center for Nanoscience Innovation for Defense, a joint effort with UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside to turn research in the nanosciences into applications for the defense sector.
Since graduating with a Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard University in 1972, Yablonovitch has gone back and forth between academia and industry. He worked for two years at Bell Telephone Laboratories, taught applied physics at Harvard for five years, then joined Exxon to do research on photovoltaic solar energy. In 1984, he became a staff member at Bell Communications Research, where he began his work in photonic crystals. Finally, in 1992, he joined UCLA’s electrical engineering faculty and settled in Malibu with his wife, Karen, and their two children: Benjamin, a management science undergraduate at UC San Diego, and Arielle, a high school sophomore.
The father of photonic crystals no longer feels the need to return to industry. “I don’t have to do that because I can help industry from where I’m sitting now,” he said.