|Mario Paniccia and his
research team became overnight sensations in the high-tech world when
they succeeded in building a super-fast silicon photonic chip that
uses light waves instead of electricity to send data.
Chasing the speed of
Endicott native Mario Paniccia '88 leads the drive
for the world's fastest silicon photonic chip
As a kid growing up in Endicott, N.Y., in the 1970s and 1980s, Mario
Paniccia always aimed to head out to Silicon Valley some day. He dreamed
of settling there, starting his own high-tech firm and building a comfortable
Now, a couple of decades later, Paniccia is a shining star in Silicon
Valley. The 37-year-old physicist and Binghamton University alumnus made
headlines around the world earlier this year when his Intel research team
unveiled the exciting development of a super-fast silicon photonic chip
that could someday transform computing and communications by using light
waves instead of electricity to send data.
Geared to switch light on and off like an optical shutter, this new type
of chip can encode light beams passing through silicon at speeds up to
1 gigahertz (or 1 billion cycles a second), as much as 50 times faster
than the previous silicon switching record. Intel scientists say the creation
of this new silicon-based photonic device could lead to the development
of ultra high-speed fiber-optic equipment at much lower prices than before,
allowing computers to span different locations and beam high-definition
video and images hundreds of times faster than they do now.
"With silicon, you significantly change the cost economics of the
market," said Paniccia, who heads Intel's photonics technology
laboratory in Santa Clara, Calif. "Our research goal is to ‘siliconize'
Paniccia, a solid-state physicist with master's and PhD degrees
from Purdue University, came up with the idea for the breakthrough optical
modulator after puzzling over the high cost of building photonic devices
and systems. These components are so expensive now because they're
typically made with such esoteric materials as indium phosphide, lithium
niobate or gallium arsenide, not relatively cheap silicon.
"It just kind of evolved," he said. "I had a couple
of ‘eureka' moments . . . I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation
that this could work."
With backing from Leslie Vadasz, an original Intel employee and former
top executive who's now a director emeritus of the company, Paniccia
put together a small, select team several years ago to work on the top-secret
project. Even though a number of his researchers didn't think silicon
could be used to beam light at such blistering speeds, he galvanized them
to at least try.
"Half the people who came onboard didn't believe it could
be done," he said. "They came onboard because it was an interesting
project . . . When I put the stake in the ground at 1 gigahertz, I almost
had a mutiny."
Paniccia and his crew also faced many unique hurdles. For one thing, they
couldn't use modeling, a tried-and-true scientific technique, to
study their invention because they were attempting something totally new.
"The process didn't exist," he said. "We had to
develop a process from scratch. There were no models."
But that didn't faze Paniccia and his talented team. "I kind
of thrive on risks," he said. "If it's not a risky project,
I'm not interested."
Toiling away in the photonics lab, the crack researchers persisted. By
mid-summer 2003, after conducting their preliminary speed measurements,
they realized they had hit paydirt. But Paniccia didn't realize
how much paydirt they had hit until the prestigious scientific journal
Nature agreed to publish their paper on the silicon modulator last fall.
"This is the first time Intel has ever published anything in Nature,"
the people who came onboard didn't believe it could be done. . .
. When I put the stake in the ground at 1 gigahertz, I almost had a mutiny."
"I had no idea it'd be that big a deal." In fact, the
development was such a big deal that 169 newspapers, magazines, news services,
trade journals, TV networks, Web newsletters and other media outlets quickly
ran extensive stories about it, including The New York Times, the
Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, USA Today, Reuters, the Associated Press,
CNN and ABC News.
|This silicon-based, ultra high-speed modulator,
developed by Pannicia and his research team at Intel, can encode light
beams at up to 1 billion cycles a second.
As a result of this and earlier optical discoveries at Intel, Paniccia,
who still gives Binghamton Prof. Robert Pompi credit as his mentor, is
now quite the celebrity scientist. Invitations to speak and present his
work have streamed in from academic and research conferences across the
globe. In the fall, for instance, he's slated to speak at the opening
of a conference in Hong Kong. "I'm going to do my world tour
this year," he joked.
Paniccia is also such a star at home that his nearly 3-year-old son,
Michael Sergio, thinks he's a good buddy of Intel CEO Craig Barrett.
Used to watching a tape of his father and Barrett appearing on stage
to introduce the silicon modulator, young Michael constantly asks Paniccia
whether he's seen Barrett that day.
Such accolades don't go to Paniccia's head, though. The son
of Italian immigrants who never went past fifth grade in school, he didn't
grow up in working-class Endicott dreaming of fame and fortune. He just
wanted to go out to Silicon Valley and work on new technologies.
Growing up like that really balances you," he said. "I never
get caught up in the money or the power or the title." He also
credits his "extremely supportive" wife, Rachel, whom he
met at Purdue.
Still, Paniccia can't help but be amazed by his success. On a trip
back home to Endicott this past spring, where he received nearly a hero's
welcome from family and old friends, he marveled at where his dream has
"Sometimes you pinch yourself," he said. "Most people
don't get this opportunity . . . Growing up, who would've thought?"
Alan Breznick '79