Please tell us about yourself

When Vishal Saxena, 36,  was a boy growing up in Lucknow, India, he was mostly “into computers and robots. I dreamed of being a scientist, an engineer.” Talk about wish fulfillment. Today, Saxena can don several hats without exaggeration – engineer, scientist, inventor and futurist.

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The Lucknow, India native has come a long way since the time in 1991 when he built his first video game on a BBC microcomputer with only 16 kilobytes of memory. He hopes his imagination serves Micron well, too.. He is an associate professor with tenure at Boise State University where he works mostly with computers. And robots. He did his B.Tech in Electrical Engineering (Minor: Engineering Physics) from Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, PhD (Analog, Mixed Signal Circuit Design)  from Boise State University

The National Science Foundation has awarded Vishal Saxena, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Boise State University, with a prestigious CAREER award to investigate the next generation of optoelectronic chips to reduce the energy needed to sustain the Internet cloud while also using more sustainable options.

What do you do?

The profusion in mobile computing devices and apps and the seemingly unlimited data storage offered by the cloud has opened the door to a world of at-your-fingertip services encompassing production systems, banking, entertainment, social interaction, information distribution and research.

But the countless benefits are accompanied by an ever-expanding energy footprint that is not sustainable in the long-term, particularly when “big data” is added to the picture. As information on the cloud continues to grow exponentially, data centers have become among the fastest growing consumers of electricity in the United States. They currently account for more than 2 percent of the total power consumption in the United States, a number that is growing every year and consuming an ever-dwindling supply of fossil fuels.

The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research. The prestigious award opens doors to wider collaborations and will enable Saxena to build a sustainable research program in integrated circuit design.

How does your work benefit the world?

“We have reached the limits for how fast you can process and transmit information using electrons over copper cables,” Saxena said. “So we thought about leveraging photonics in a novel way where light is used for information processing as well as communication; light being the fastest signaling mechanism at our disposal. Using hybrid circuits that synergistically incorporate photonics with electronics allows for almost instantaneous communication, providing faster systems that use less power.Saxena’s five-year, $500,000 grant is titled “Mixed Signal Photonics Integrated Circuits for High-Performance Data Interfaces.” His work centers on developing novel data communication interfaces using photons (light) rather than electrons in next-generation hybrid optoelectronics chips to process and transfer data, resulting in a multi-fold increase in data capacity coupled with reduced energy consumption.

Saxena’s area of expertise is in integrated circuit design, but he also has a background in optical interconnect technology, thanks to his work as a doctoral student with Lightwire, an early startup in this area. When he was looking for an area of research that would speak to the NSF’s requirements for the CAREER grant, he knew that effectively combining mixed-signal circuits with photonics would be transformative.

For individuals, the technology would bring instant connectivity to home and personal devices and enable telepresence.Just a few millimeters square, the chips’ primary application is to power high performance exascale computing centers (and supercomputers) with a sustainable energy footprint. Future applications could include improvements in desktop computers, cell phone networks and more. Saxena even foresees the possibility of using the technology in biomedical applications including bio-sensing and low-cost DNA sequencing.

“At over 100 gigabytes per second, you could have several streams of HDTV completely provided over the Internet, or work from home and feel like you were right there at the office. We could have computers with significantly improved performance and better mobile devices and networks,” he said. “And the fibers are made from glass, not copper, potentially enabling low-cost and more sustainable network infrastructure.”

What are the real world applications of your work?

In one application, the chips reduce energy consumption and increase data storage capacity in internet cloud data centers. In today’s internet-centric society, with cloud-based services such as Google Docs, Dropbox and Netflix making big data more accessible, the carbon footprint of data centers is massive. Saxena’s research directly addresses that problem. In 2014, the idea won him five years of funding from the National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

These hybrid chips also have applications in wireless devices for the Department of Defense. They allow military personnel to consolidate their devices, such as cell phones and GPS systems that require different frequencies, into one mobile receiver called a flexible radio. For this project, in 2015, Saxena won three years of funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator’s Award.

Once complete, Saxena hopes these memory chips will be of manufacturing interest to the semiconductor industry.