Engineering’s Firooz Aflatouni’s electronic-photonic innovations

The first-ever image of a black hole, published in 2019, was constructed from five petabytes of data. These files were so large that they had to be flown to data analysts in giant stacks of hard drives; a plane ride from Hawaii was faster than the internet. Thankfully, Firooz Aflatouni is improving the fundamentals of data transfer to make sharing information about black holes—or just texting a friend—a faster, more efficient process. 

Firooz Aflatouni and a member of his lab sit at a table in his lab surrounded by engineering equipment.
Aflatouni’s (left) lab works to make the electronic and photonic components of our modern information delivery infrastructure work together. (Pre-pandemic image: Penn Engineering)

Aflatouni, Skirkanich Assistant Professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering, has built his career on designing clever combinations of electronic and photonic technology with applications from laser-based 3D imaging, to microwave “cameras” that can see through walls or into tumors, to brain-machine interface systems. One current project, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), focuses on making an electronic-photonic chip that can transfer tens of thousands of times more data per second than those found in current modems.

Right now, many systems are switching from sending information electronically to using fiber optics, which encodes information in the amplitude of light waves. Because light waves have a much higher frequency than electrical signals, fiber optic cabling is already making ultrafast connections between computers, and optically connected CPUs have the potential to make the computers themselves much faster. As of now, systems can’t quite make the most of this speed. Currently, there are separate chips to deal with electronic and photonic information, and communication between these chips is costly.

Transferring data from the electronic domain to the optical domain and back takes valuable time and energy. Aflatouni’s Electronic Photonic Microsystems Lab constructs chips that handle electronic and photonic information in the same place—an approach called “electronic-photonic co-design.”

“I’m generally open to pursuing ‘out-there’ opportunities, so my work builds off of my core electronic-photonic area and is pretty diverse. My research has benefitted significantly from Penn’s culture of collaboration,” says Aflatouni.

This story is by Lauren Salig. Read more at Penn Engineering.