Scientist Earns Early Career Awards to Advance Optical Computing

The exponential need for high computing power significantly outstrips the capabilities of present electronic systems; nevertheless, engineers from the University of Pittsburgh are shedding light on potential solutions.

Image Credit: Fernando Cortes/

Nathan Youngblood, principal investigator and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, was awarded a $552,166 Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a $449,240 award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) through its Young Investigator Program (YIP) to continue his groundbreaking work in phase-change materials and optical computing.

Dr. Youngblood is a rising star and one of the finest young researchers, scholars, and educators at Pitt Engineering. His two latest achievements – the CAREER Award and the AFOSR Young Investigator Award – are truly exceptional and we are so proud of him and excited about his growing research program and group of students.

Alan George, Department Chair, R&H Mickle Endowed Chair, and Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Pittsburgh

Optical computing, also known as photonic computing, has shown potential over traditional hardware by utilizing light waves generated by lasers or other sources for data storage, processing, or transmission for computing. However, present technology restricts its usefulness.

Youngblood will use this funding to investigate two alternative techniques to improve the speed, reliability, and efficiency of optical computing. The first technique leverages the wave-like characteristics of light to improve the efficiency of optical computing, whereas the second focuses on developing optical memory to boost computational throughput.

Computing in the World of AI

Youngblood’s goal for his CAREER Award is to create highly efficient optical computing technology to tackle important artificial intelligence (AI) problems.

As AI applications services continue to become more prominent, we need the computing power to be able to support them. There have been notable advancements in modern computers, but gains in traditional hardware efficiency are unable to keep pace with these data-hungry systems. Optical computing makes it possible.

Nathan Youngblood, Principal Investigator and Assistant Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Swanson School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh

Due to the massive volumes of data traveling through the processor’s metal wires at fast speeds, undesired heat is produced when present computing techniques attempt to satisfy AI’s needs.

Youngblood added, “Photons don’t have this heating issue, so you can process data much faster using light. Right now, however, optical processors are not powerful enough, accurate enough, or efficient enough to be truly useful for AI.

Youngblood was successful in obtaining an initial seeding grant and early data for his CAREER Award, thanks to the funds provided by Pitt’s Momentum Funds.

I am incredibly thankful for Pitt’s help in jumpstarting this research,” Youngblood stated.

An Upgrade in Modern Computing

It is obvious that modern computing devices have reached their limit.

Data transfers between memory and processor cores impede the performance of current computer hardware, slowing down computing and adding extra heat to the system.

Youngblood will develop photonic hardware under the Young Investigator Program that will allow computation to take place within the optical memory array itself, significantly minimizing data transit.

His lab’s research will focus on three main areas: designing fully analog multilayer photonic networks for quick and efficient computing; demonstrating a multi-layer, fully analog photonic in-memory accelerator on a chip; and enhancing the efficiency, repeatability, and reliability of electrically programmable phase-change photonic memory.

As a result of this effort, new materials for reconfigurable photonic devices will be developed more quickly, and these components will be integrated into optoelectronic computational systems.

The resulting platform is expected to have significant impact for Air and Space Force applications requiring ultra-low latency computation, target discrimination, and autonomous navigation where there is an immediate need for extremely high speed information processing,” added Youngblood.

The $21.5 million awarded to YIP recipients, who get three-year grants of up to $450,000, includes the project “Photonic in-memory accelerators for low-latency and efficient computing.” The chosen candidates must possess extraordinary aptitude and promise for carrying out fundamental research relevant to the Department of the Air Force.

Apart from his scientific contributions to the advancement of optical and modern computing, Youngblood’s CAREER grant will facilitate his efforts in building a diverse workforce in the high-tech sector in the Pittsburgh region.

Affordable educational resources introducing students to AI uses of nanotechnology are being developed, STEM workshops are being held in association with Pitt's outreach program (LEAD), and undergraduate researchers are being mentored through Pitt's EXCEL summer research program.

To provide quantitative indicators for the project's overall impact on workforce diversity and AI innovation, voluntary evaluations will monitor educational achievements.


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