Almost everyone would agree that electronics have become an integral part of everyday life; however, many people don’t realize that photonic devices are also widespread and tremendously important to our society. For example, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) light up our homes, fiber optics form the backbone of the internet and photovoltaic solar cells provide much needed renewable energy.
Yet, these photonic devices represent only the beginning of what’s possible. Fundamentally, photonic technologies offer dramatic increases in computing speed, reduced power consumption and highly sensitive sensing capabilities over conventional electronic devices. Students on the Photonics pathway will learn how photonics serves as the backbone for many engineered systems and advances in computing, as well as some of the most cutting-edge technology currently being developed in research labs around the world.
This pathway is a good fit for students who are interested in:
- A career focused on operating and developing communication systems
- Working in developing sensors for emerging autonomous systems and augmented reality visors
- Working on creating next-generation computing systems such as quantum computers
- Working on biomedicine that uses light and optics for imaging and nerve stimulation
- Making new photonic components, devices and systems for a wide range of applications
- Learning microfabrication, as fabricating photonic devices provides excellent training for key techniques in microfabrication
- Becoming a key contributor in cutting-edge startups
- Working in emerging research fields with UW ECE faculty invested in photonics and photonic integrated circuits
Does a student need a graduate degree specializing in this area to be marketable to industry?
No. Students completing their bachelor’s degree are prepared to pursue positions at large companies (such as Google, Microsoft, and Meta) for roles in photonic and fabrication testing. For those students interested in graduate school, recent UW ECE graduates focusing in photonics have pursued master’s and doctoral degrees at the UW, UC Berkeley, the University of Colorado Boulder, MIT, Caltech and Stanford.
What are some examples of photonics applied to the real world?
- Deploying photonic circuits in data centers for energy-efficient cloud computing
- Creating ultra-compact sensors and displays for augmented reality visors
- Making thinner cellphones and laptop cameras
- Developing thinner televisions with higher resolutions and energy-efficient smart lighting technologies
- Developing technologies for non-surgical alternatives to common healthcare problems
Does photonics touch on global impact, equity and/or quality of life?
Yes. Photonics is the backbone of communicating information around the world, and as such, it plays an extremely important role in providing equitable access to information, the internet and communication across the globe. Additionally, compact sensors and imaging systems, along with novel renewable energy platforms, will continue to expand access to electricity and healthcare across developed and developing nations alike.
Areas of Impact
Air and Space
Optical imaging is at the center of astronomy. Photos taken by the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes simply would not be possible without advanced optical imaging. Such imaging cameras are also a key component of aeronautical navigation systems and are on track to be significantly miniaturized using photonics.
Computing Data and Digital Technologies
The internet runs largely on fiber optical communication systems. Photonic integrated circuits play an exceedingly important role in the successful operation of these systems. Beyond classical optical communication, photonics also plays an essential role in the emerging field of quantum information science and technology.
Environmental Sustainability and Energy
Photonics plays an important role in renewable energy, including efficient photovoltaics and passive radiative cooling. Such technologies can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of human activity, and in so doing, contribute to reducing the damage wrought by climate change. LED lighting systems also play an important role in reducing residential and commercial power consumption. And to monitor reductions or changes in carbon footprint and related impacts, photonics affords powerful sensing technologies based on multi-spectral imaging that accurately and reliably monitors our air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.
Health and Medicine
Almost any kind of biomedical imaging system today will require photonics and optics. For example, miniature endoscopes use miniaturized cameras to non-surgically examine the digestive tract. Angioscopes use similar cameras to survey the interior of blood vessels to assist in diagnosing and treating cardiovascular disease. Apart from these miniaturized imaging devices, the application of photonics to optogenetics enables light to be used to stimulate neurons and support expanding our understanding of how the brain works.
Infrastructure, Transportation, and Society
With the advent of autonomous transportation, smart homes and smart cities, trillions of sensors are needed to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds. Many of these sensors will be optical sensors. Miniaturizing these sensors using photonics is an emerging research area that offers the opportunity to sense and monitor bridges, roads, cars and many other pieces of our national infrastructure in ways never before possible.
Robotics and Manufacturing
Lasers are used in a broad range of applications in manufacturing including enabling accurate cutting of materials and very precise welding power. As in many other fields, photonics also enables high performance vision systems. In robotics, these vision systems are important for precision tasks and autonomous navigation.
Related Career Paths
Graduates who focus on photonics are frequently employed at:
- Large, public companies such as Meta, Osram, Samsung, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Intel, Micron, Boeing and Fluke Corporation
- Startups working on photonics (many of which are in the Pacific Northwest) including Magic Leap, Maple Photonics, Tunoptix and ThruWave
- National laboratories, such as the National Renewable Energy Labs and Sandia National Labs
On-the-job tasks for graduates with a focus in Photonics include:
- Building virtual reality goggles with high definition and full 3D capability.
- Designing laser image sensors for self-driving cars and trucks.
- Building solar cells with higher efficiency and lower cost.
When planning for courses, review projected course offerings here and be sure to check all course prerequisites (course titles below link to the catalog course description, which includes prerequisite information).
These courses are suggested for those following the Photonics pathway but are not required to complete the BSECE degree program:
Over the long history of electrical engineering in the United States, Maxwell’s equations have remained a cornerstone to understanding key EE technologies including WiFi, 5G, Bluetooth, and a myriad of other ways to send and receive data, voice, and images wirelessly. EE 361 is an application-oriented course designed to develop fundamental understanding of how these technologies work and to set the stage for future research and courses that require wireless communication.
How can light be generated, manipulated, propagated and guided through different media to enable photonics to be applied to many of today’s hottest technologies? EE 487 explores this question and offers students an opportunity to design their own waveguide, learn how basic photonic components and devices work, and prepare them for graduate school research and job positions that increasingly call for this type of expertise.
Armed with EE 487 as a prerequisite, students in EE 488 are introduced to the quantum nature of light – photons, and many resulting phenomena that led to the realization of LEDs, photodetectors (light sensors), and lasers which are now ubiquitous in everyday life around the globe. EE 488 is the course where preparation provided by EE 487 and other courses all comes together to unravel the mysteries of how photonics devices work and as importantly, paint a vision for what will become possible in the future.
While there is no area-specific capstone for Photonics, industry-sponsored capstone projects that require photonics expertise can be completed through the ENGINE capstone course sequence (see description below), or alternatively, pursued in the labs of individual faculty conducting research in state-of-the-art photonics applications. Past capstone projects that emphasized photonics include the control of nano-fabricated lenses using embedded systems and development of undersea communication links using LEDs and optical detectors.
The Engineering Entrepreneurial Capstone program (ENGINE) is the culmination of a student’s electrical and computer engineering education at UW ECE. The program provides a unique opportunity for students to develop skills in collaborative systems engineering, project management, and most importantly, working in teams on real-world problems from industry-sponsored projects. The program is overseen by UW ECE faculty and students are guided by practicing engineers. The course culminates in a showcase of student projects, which is attended by industry sponsors and held at the end of spring quarter every year.
Students studying Photonics should also consider the following customizable pathways:
Enriching Your Path
There are several other advanced photonics courses offered at UW ECE, including:
- EE 400/529 — Semiconductor Optoelectronics
- EE 400/535 — Applied Nanophotonics
- EE 400/539 — Applied Quantum Optics
- EE 400/539 — Nonlinear Optics
These courses are co-offered to undergraduate students under the special topics course number EE 400 and can provide students with more in-depth knowledge about photonics. Complementing this suite of courses, multiple UW ECE faculty members pursue cutting-edge research in photonics and offer research opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students.