Turquoise lasers crisscross the black fabric workspace as Mark Kuzyk busies himself among cramped research benches. If you could see his thoughts, they might look like a blackboard full of equations — each one coming alive as explosions, flying rockets, supercomputers, or … light-powered “smart material.”
(Catch a glimpse into the mind of Kuzyk, the man, the teacher, the scientist and the dreamer — in a video clip that accompanies this article
A pioneer in the frontier of lasers and nonlinear optics, Kuzyk is proposing that “smart material” — a touch-sensitive network of polymer optical fibers — might someday have the ability to transform itself into nearly any object you could imagine. (Photo by Becky Phillips, WSU Today, with special thanks to Juefei Zhou, graduate student in physics.)

As professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Kuzyk leads the way in the futuristic field of polymer fiber optics with ideas for technologies that make today’s electronic achievements look like the dark ages.

In his recent book, “Polymer Fiber Optics – Materials, Physics and Applications,” Kuzyk details the use of light-powered transistors and “engines” that could exponentially increase the speed of data transmission as well as revolutionize medicine and industry.

Nonlinear phenomena

Nonlinear optics is a merging of the worlds of quantum mechanics and optics — fields dealing with the relationship between electrons and photons, the particles that carry light. Researchers got their first glimpse into this realm in the 1960s with the invention of the laser. It was found that when highly intense light was passed through a substance such as water or glass, the rays could change that material’s “normal” refractive index (bending of light waves) — thereby acting in a “nonlinear” fashion. This discovery opened the door to a world of previously unknown phenomena such as the creation of new colors of light.

This is Kuzyk’s kind of territory. His work with lasers has produced internationally acclaimed breakthroughs. Yet for the past 15 years, he has kept his work with smart materials on the back burner.
“It was bootleg research,” he said. “It wasn’t funded. I had to do it in my spare time.”

Today, however, international interest is growing in the subject and he feels the time is right to renew his efforts.

Photomechanical effects
Early fiber optic systems were composed of very fine, but brittle, threads of glass. Kuzyk and his team have created comparable plastic fibers which are not only more durable but also allow the high intensity light to be adjusted as it passes through. Using very thin strands of polymer plastic, light can be conducted for a multitude of applications such as telecommunications and Internet connections.

Going a step further, Kuzyk and his team took short plastic fibers and embedded tiny reflectors into each end. When laser light is introduced into the fiber, it bounces back and forth between the reflectors creating feedback that causes changes in the length of the fiber. At a certain point, the fiber can resist further changes and, in essence, also becomes an optical “transistor.” Kuzyk calls these discreet fiber units photomechanical optical devices, or PODs.

“Just as an electronic transistor controls the flow of electrons,” he explained, “the POD ‘transistor’ can control the flow of photons. (see diagram below).

And PODs produce what are known as photomechanical effects — or light-induced changes in the mechanical properties of a material.
“For example, depending on its intensity and character, light can soften a material, change its density or cause it to bend,” said Kuzyk.

Beyond electronics
In electronics, the power of transistors is greatly multiplied by combining them to create integrated circuits. Yet the electricity must still pass through each transistor serially — step by step.

“With PODs, a light beam can pass through an entire network of fibers at once — and then selectively activate individual PODs,” Kuzyk said.
In addition, the length of the fibers can be changed by simply touching them — allowing them to become actuators or tiny engines. They can also function as sensors, able to measure the amount of light passing through them in response to the force of touch being applied.
“This makes each fiber very ‘smart’ compared to electronic transistors,” said Kuzyk.

Such a collection of smart fibers could form the foundation for a number of future applications — such as “quiet” wallpaper that adjusts itself to suppress sound, or airplane wings that “know” how to handle turbulence during flight. Devices made of such material could be voice- or touch-activated. Portable laser “batteries” could power individual gadgets.

Better than a hologram
Peering more deeply into the future, Kuzyk said that “by connecting many smart fibers together and then burning mirrors into them, you create devices able to reflect and be activated by specific colors of light. All of the POD units activated by red light, for example, could communicate exclusively and instantaneously.”
Simply touching such a device would alter the light intensity in all the other devices tuned to that color. The net effect, said Kuzyk, is that one touch can change the length and shape of the entire fiber network. By pressing in one spot, it may become a helix. In another, it may form a rod.

“This is the basis for making a bulk ‘smart material’ that could change form completely,” he said. “It could be an all-purpose object with the ability to morph into a chair or iPod or camera. Instead of talking to your uncle on the east coast on a videophone or by hologram, you could have an actual 3-D ‘body’ of him sitting right there in your living room that you could interact with.”

Compared to a brain, which is built on interconnections between neighboring neurons, smart material would link every fiber device simultaneously.

“The level of intelligence could be much greater than the human brain is capable of,” he said. “But these are very far out applications — maybe 30 years down the road … or never.  We are just looking at the fundamental building blocks for these kinds of materials right now.”

For more information on Kuzyk’s work, see ONLINE @
 • http://washington-state-magazine.wsu.edu/stories/2006/May/kuzyk.html

Wizard of light works magic in video
Teaching and research are one and the same to Mark Kuzyk. Using unpredictable and sometimes awe-inspiring classroom methods, he makes a complex subject like physics fun and motivates students to follow in his footsteps. A number of students have eventually become colleagues.

He is also a pioneer in the world of lasers and nonlinear optics — offering visionary, and sometimes “crazy to the rest of the world,” ideas for future technologies. Catch a glimpse into the mind of Kuzyk — the man, the teacher, the scientist and the dreamer — in a video clip that accompanies this article @ http://www.wsutoday.wsu.edu/default.asp?PageID=71 .