Building the backbone of the information society

October 27, 2022

How the Eindhoven Hendrik Casimir Institute develops novel information and communication systems.

Researchers Diana Leitao (right) and Chigo Okonkwo. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

The future of our information-based society will be built on hybrid technologies, EHCI researchers Diana Leitao and Chigo Okonkwo are convinced. And that is why both scientists, though firmly rooted in their respective disciplines of physics and electrical engineering, are strong advocates for seeking synergies between people with different research backgrounds.

Information is the new gold. In an era when virtually every part of our daily lives is controlled by digital systems and hackers can shut down universities, municipalities, or even electricity networks, gathering, analysing, transmitting, and using data has become the backbone of society. The development of sustainable, energy-efficient and trustworthy systems for sensing, computing and communicating is therefore of undisputed importance.

At the Eindhoven Hendrik Casimir Institute, researchers from a wide variety of backgrounds, both in terms of scientific disciplines and geographic origin, work together to develop the information and communication systems of the future.

Leverage on track record

Physicist Diana Leitao and electrical engineer Chigo Okonkwo both came to Eindhoven from abroad to leverage on Brainport’s track record in high-tech systems. Okonkwo joined TU/e in 2010 as a postdoc researcher after earning his PhD in optical signal processing at the University of Essex. Since then, he has built up a world-class high-capacity optical transmission laboratory where he collaborates with several industrial partners.

What I find interesting about my field of research is that it has industrial relevance.

Currently, Okonkwo is an Associate Professor at the Electro-Optical Communication group. “After obtaining my PhD, I was looking for a different environment. Eindhoven was renowned for its focus on optical fiber communications combined with photonic integration, and for the funding opportunities in this field. I was employed as a tenure track Assistant Professor to work on high-capacity optical systems and was given the opportunity to set up my own lab. What I find interesting about my field of research is that it has industrial relevance. We are building the backbone of the internet. Our research is systems-oriented, and we solve scientifically challenging, relevant problems to make our future, high-capacity communication systems more energy-efficient, robust and secure.”

Diana Leitao.

Like Okonkwo, Diana Leitao, who has been working at the Physics of Nanostructures group as an Assistant Professor for about a year now, is also driven by societal relevance in her research into novel thin-film stackings and fabrication methods to improve the performance of magnetic sensors. “The sensors I am working on to detect magnetic fields have widespread applications, ranging from the automotive sector to biomedical devices. After obtaining my PhD in Physics in Porto and Madrid, I worked in Lisbon, first as a postdoctoral researcher and then with a personal FCT Investigator Starting Grant. After this I was looking for a new challenge where I could engage more in teaching. When I came across the work here, it was the interplay between academia and industry that especially attracted me. This region houses a lot of industry related to microdevices, nanofabrication, and lithography, making it a vibrant, interesting place to work. On top of that, the tight relations between our spintronics oriented group and the groups working on photonics enables me to take the next steps in combining magnetism with optics."

The hybrid future

It is in this combination of different technologies where Leitao sees a bright future for sensing, as she explains. “I am always looking for the next steps to keep the technology competitive. So, besides working on improvements of what we have now, I also contemplate what we can come up with that is totally new. In my opinion, the future is in hybrid technology, where we take the best of each individual field and combine those to provide a new solution that offers functionality that was not there before.”

I am always looking for the next steps to keep the technology competitive.

As far as magnetics-based sensors go, one of the many challenges is to come to versatile, reprogrammable sensors that can for example both detect very low fields and very high fields with high spatial resolution, or sense three dimensional magnetic fields, Leitao explains. “The combination of electronics and photonics opens up a lot of new possibilities there,” Leitao thinks. “You can think of spintronic memories , where the magnetic bits are written and read by light – as the ones being developed by my colleagues in the group.”

“And though I don’t know exactly what to expect from the quantum leap, I can imagine our sensors to be of use for highly sensitive metrology purposes, or for non-destructive evaluation of critical hardware elements that play a role in quantum computing.”

Taking a practical approach

To optimize the chance that her designs end up in applications, Leitao takes a practical approach to developing the next generation of sensors. “Our approach is based on thin film technology,” she notes. “By changing the packing of atoms, playing around with the thicknesses of the subsequent layers of material, and by making new combinations of materials, we can nanoengineer novel structures to fulfil the requirements for specific applications. But instead of looking for exotic combinations that would work best in theory, we start from materials that are common in semiconductor industry, and tune and control their physical properties towards what we are looking for.”

This practical approach is another trait Leitao and Okonkwo have in common. As one of the leaders of EHCI’s focus area ‘Quantum secure networks’, Okonkwo aims to establish a real-world quantum network that uses encryption based on the principles of quantum physics to secure information.

We test technology that is currently available off the shelf, and in parallel we develop new technology from the lab to the field.

“Several years ago, I teamed up with Idelfonso Tafur Monroy to bring quantum transmission systems into the field, alongside classical communication systems,” as he tells the tale of how this line of research came to be. In the meantime, this research topic has become a key area of research in the Netherlands through the Quantum Delta NL Growth Fund proposal that has recently been awarded 615 million euros in funding. “In our testbed, which basically connects our labs on the TU/e campus with various test locations in the region via an existing optical fiber network, we test technology that is currently available off the shelf, and in parallel we develop new technology from the lab to the field.”

Chigo Okonkwo.

The focus is on so-called Quantum Key Distribution (QKD). This technology could replace current cryptography protocols used to secure our data to prepare for future quantum computers that may be able to crack the current encryption schemes in the blink of an eye. In QKD, quantum properties of photons are used to create cryptographic keys. QKD protocols informs the recipient of the data about what measurement bases of the photons are needed to properly decode and access the data. The beauty of using quantum properties for generating keys is that it is impossible to eavesdrop without getting noticed, since any measurement on the quantum properties of the photon instantly changes them.

Eindhoven is the center of gravity for photonics and quantum technology.

“Eindhoven is the center of gravity for photonics and quantum technology,” Okonkwo states. “We work on both the hardware and the software, and we actively involve companies in these developments since they are where true innovation will live on to make an impact in society as products.” The first step in these developments is to find out what sort of photonic systems are required in terms of receivers, modulators, lasers, and detectors, and how many keys can be generated within a certain amount of time.

“We want to go beyond point-to-point communication, and establish a true quantum secure network where one point is connected to multiple others in a secure way. Questions we need to answer range from how to generate key material, how to use them in a network setting, and how to standardize these systems in such a way that we can ensure end-to-end security.” Mitigating and understanding noise is a key element here, Okonkwo acknowledges. “You need to distinguish the noise originating from the sender and the receiver from the noise inflicted upon the signal by an eavesdropper. That is why, among other things, we are working on techniques to isolate electronic excess noise.”

Photo: Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie.

Societal relevance

Though Okonkwo is a scientist at heart, and always looking for new problems to solve, he has a clear view of what he is working towards with his research. “In ten to twenty years from now, I hope that companies will come to Eindhoven to have their communication devices quantum certified, meaning that they are proven to be able to be secure against an attack from a quantum computer. I am convinced that in the future, quantum security will be found in many applications that need protection against adversaries, ranging from platoons of self-driving vehicles, sensitive medical data, and data back-ups by banks, to authentication of individuals performing digital financial transactions.”

It is exactly this apparent societal relevance of the research that also attracts students to the field, he observes with joy. “Students nowadays are motivated to make an impact on society. They come to me with critical questions about how we help save energy, which is one of the things we are actively working on with our photonics-based devices and systems. The three grand challenges we are addressing in the institute also resonate with the student population. We are currently working on new master tracks to provide a multifaceted view on our future information and communication systems, and to equip our students with the knowledge and know-how they need for their future careers in research or industry.”

Next generation

To prepare the next generation of engineers for the upcoming revolution in information and communication technologies, the EHCI also develops new ways for students to gain hands-on experience with the hardware that drives our digitalizing society, Leitao adds.

“To facilitate challenge-based education in this field, we are establishing a multi-disciplinary laboratory that will be open to the TU/e community for educational purposes. It is to be a space to try, to fail, to try again, to learn and to explore. The lab is supported by a gift from ASML and funding of the Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics and Science Education departments at TU/e, which enables us to build a unique space and install modern fabrication and characterization technology for students to gain experience with,” she says.

I still distinctly remember the first time I saw a thin film deposition machine in action. I was fascinated to see what it could do.

With the lab, the initiators want to make sure that from an early stage in their development, students can find out what is behind the technology they are using every day. What is inside a smartphone, and how do you make such parts? How do the components work, and what is important to consider when designing them? Leitao: “In the lab, students can explore the basics of fabrication of devices and systems, assess their properties, and find out how to package chips. The lab will establish close relations with existing research infrastructures and the Innovation Space at TU/e. Teachers can use it for challenge-based learning components of their courses, and students can use the facility to do practical work of their bachelor and master projects.”

With the lab, Leitao hopes to inspire a new generation of students to delve into the world of nanofabrication, she says. “I still distinctly remember the first time I saw a thin film deposition machine in action. I was fascinated to see what it could do. It is that kind of inspiration I want to bring to students with this lab, letting them experience for themselves the opportunities this field has to offer.”

And she is dreaming big, Leitao admits. “As far as I am concerned, we should also take these types of initiatives to people outside this field. The impact of technology on our lives is ever increasing. It would be great to show society that this is not some sort of magic, but, awesome as it might be, is just something we created that can be understood.”  

Barry Fitzgerald
(Science Information Officer)

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