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2006 Faculty Awards: Andrew Steckl Blazes New Trails in Light Research

Light. It’s the topic of Andrew Steckl’s research, but it’s also what his face is full of as he describes it. Steckl's research has earned him this year's Rieveschl Award for Distinguished Scientific Research.

Date: 5/8/2006
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover
Steckl reading journal article on his computer.
Steckl's work was recently published in Cyrillic in a Russian journal on the elements.

Spend an hour with Andrew Steckl and you will walk away thinking that photonics makes complete sense — and that you understand it. That’s part of the brilliance of Steckl. He can take his most complex research subjects and break them down into easily understood packages of information. Steckl, an Ohio eminent scholar and professor of electrical engineering, is a blazing new trails in photonics research. His research in photonics and its optical applications has earned him an international reputation. It's also earned him this year’s Rieveschl Award for Distinguished Scientific Research.

“You know how it is with the sciences; it doesn’t start from nothing,” he says with humility. “You’re always standing on somebody’s shoulders.” Humility aside, there aren’t many shoulders where Steckl is standing.

“Not only did he create the field,” says Professor Martin Kordesch of Ohio University. “He is also the driving force behind its development years afterwards.”

UC Professor Ranga Vemuri concurs. “Dr. Steckl is, quite simply, the father of this field which is now a world-wide area of active research.”

“It’s basically a serendipity between two classes of materials, which by themselves have certain properties,” Steckl explains. “When you put them together, the combination has interesting and — in retrospect, not so surprising — new properties.”

In Steckl’s case, the two materials are semiconductor materials and the rare earths. The semiconductor materials can emit light, but it is in a range where the human eye cannot see it. Sprinkle in a soupcon of rare earths and voila! You get a material with light-emission properties because of its atomic structure. The goal is to make a device that emits light when you put electricity through it.

“We can now combine these rare earths so that we can have emission of multiple colors and to the eye it looks like various shades in between,” Steckl says. “It turned out to be very flexible, very versatile. So from the point of view of applications, it’s been fantastic.”

Andrew Steckl in his office.
Steckl is in the shadow of Rieveschl -- literally. His office looks out at Rieveschl Hall.

Two key applications are being pursued: flat panel displays and lasers. “In a conventional display with an LCD (lighted crystal diode), you’re looking at light that is transmitted through the panel. There’s a big bulb in the back. That light is filtered in order to give you red, green and blue, so it’s a very inefficient process. By the time you are finished, to have a very bright display you have to have a lot of white light generated in the first place. In our concept, you generate directly in each and every light color.”

What results is a more efficient process with brighter colors on a display panel that is not as temperature sensitive or angle sensitive as traditional flat-panel displays. Steckl’s now researching how to make a laser out of a similar combination of materials, on a silicon substrate.

“There’s a lot of excitement now in the silicon industry about the fact that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the basic paradigm for microelectronics may come crashing into a brick wall,” says Steckl. “It’s been all about the same basic physics, the same basic technology, just shrinking the dimensions while increasing the substrate size.” So the individual device is getting smaller and the chip size is growing.

“At some point you won’t be able to continue doing it that same way, you’ll be looking for ways out.” Steckl points out that Moore’s Law will kick in. (Gordon E. Moore, Intel co-founder, predicted in 1965 that transistor density on integrated circuits would double about every two years.) “He was the first one to observe the very orderly reduction in individual transistor sizes accompanied by an orderly increase in chip size. And one of the ways out of this is to use photonics instead of electronics to transmit data, to store data, to manipulate data.”

Steckl says there is a feeling of instant gratification in researching photonics. “Basically when light is emitted, you understand intuitively what’s going on,” he says. “The color of the light, the intensity of the light, what you can do with the light — it’s a lot of fun to work with.”

Even with all his academic accolades, Steckl measures his success through his students. One former student, Jason Heikenfeld, is now an assistant professor in the same department.

Steckl and Jason Heikenfeld.
Steckl and then-student Jason Heikenfeld at BioStart. Photo by Lisa Ventre.

“So now he is a colleague!” Steckl says proudly. “He could have gone anywhere. I consider it my biggest accomplishment that I prevented him from doing it!” In fact, Heikenfeld and Steckl have started a company together, Extreme Photonix. Their company was housed at BioStart on the Academic Health Center campus. “It was a very nice environment,” Steckl says. “I wish there were more like that. We got a lot of help from them.”

A current student, Jeong Ho Park, is working on the laser on silicon project. “He’s been an outstanding student,” says Steckl. “I wish I could keep him in Cincinnati!”

One of the areas of research that Steckl is now investigating is nanophotonics. For example, light-emitting materials called lumophores can be attached to other various materials, such as biological molecules. Then this can be used in medicine to indicate the presence of certain substances through biofluorescence.

“It all comes together,” says Steckl with a smile. “Nano-Bio-Opto.”