October 4, 2001
by Bommy Lee
Prof. Ted Sargent, Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology, spoke on
Sept. 25, in the West Block of Parliament Hill. The event was the first
in a series of breakfast meetings this year hosted by the Partnership
Group for Science and Engineering, with the aim to bring experts and policy
Sargent and his team of researchers at the Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department
of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto are
at the forefront of developing photonic communications systems. They explore
ways to create new materials that integrate inorganic formations with
"The kind of research that we're doing in my group is literally
hybridizing the inorganic and organic in that we're starting to combine
materials like silicon with molecular materials that are more similar
in their nature and flexibility to you and me," says Sargent.
He uses the term "optopia" to illustrate the possibilities
of such research. Optic utopia is a world of faster, cheaper, more efficient
network, rather than point-to-point, communication. It is a realm where
physically flexible technologies and wireless communication dominate.
Imagine being able to walk around with a computer screen rolled up like
a little scroll in your breast pocket, only to take it out when you need
to send an email or check the status of the NASDAQ.
Or, envision a jacket that can convert light energy from the sun into
electrical energy. Thus, rather than walking around with cell phones and
laptops, one could wear an almost unnoticeable tool for connecting to
the Internet or conferencing over the phone. Sargent dubs this idea the
On a smaller scale, these ideas are already a commercial reality. Some
screens in cell phones and displays found in automobiles are now being
made out of organic materials.
"Still, I would think that we're talking a time frame of three to
six years in order for us to see some of those more fantastical results
becoming available to you and me," says Sargent.
The research Sargent and his team are doing has direct implications for
the ways in which we use computers to communicate with one another, doing
business and even socializing.
"People still hop on planes to go on trips and to meet with people,
but as the ways in which we interact with one another become increasingly
sophisticated through machines and through networks, physical proximity
will become even less important than before."
"I see the capabilities of the current Internet as being wonderful
and remarkable but still rather constrained and not as imaginative as
they might be," observes Sargent.
The big challenge is to "create a network in which light eases its
way through the network through optical routers and makes it to its destination
without ever having to be converted back and forth from the optical to
the electronic and back into that optical domain."
But Sargent is optimistic about the future of his team’s research.
"In the long run the kinds of innovations in which we’re engaged
are providing a basis for the future economic prosperity of this country."