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  • Photonics marches steadily forward in southern climes

Photonics Spectra
Apr 2011

TONANTZINTLA, Mexico – Photonics research and development occurs all over the world, but in North America it is chiefly in the US and Canada that the industry flourishes. That said, all is not quiet in Mexico and its neighbors to the south.

Throughout Mexico and Central America exists a robust academic system, where universities older than the US, along with somewhat younger colleges and technical institutions, train students to become well-respected engineers, technicians and scientists.

One of the most respected academic entities in Mexico is Instituto Nacional de Astrofìsica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE), or the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics. Located in the state of Puebla, INAOE perhaps is best known as the host institution of the Large Millimeter Telescope, a 50-m-diameter dish designed to study the cosmos between 0.85- and 4-mm wavelengths.


At right, the campus of Instituto Nacional de Astro-fìsica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE) in Mexico. Below left, INAOE operates the Gran Telescopio Milimétrico (Large Millimeter Telescope), the largest millimeter-wavelength telescope in the world. It is a 50-m-diameter telescope and will start operation this year. It is located 110 miles southeast of Puebla City, Mexico, on top of Cerro la Negra mountain. Images courtesy of Rubén Ramos-Garcìa.


Within INAOE is an optics group that serves the specialized educational and technical needs of the campus’s researchers and students, and has done so nearly since INAOE opened in 1971. The optics group’s concentrations include biophotonics and medical optics, image processing and science, optics instrumentation and quantum optics. The department features about three dozen researchers, including Rubén Ramos-Garcìa, whose work incorporates nonlinear optics of liquid crystals, thermocavitation and optical tweezers. Others in the department lead investigations into quantum optics, computer-generated holograms, beam propagation in linear and nonlinear media, fiber optic lasers, biophotonics, organic LEDs and terahertz light sources, among others.

INAOE has a strong postgraduate program in astrophysics, optics, electronics and computer sciences, Ramos said, while also catering to undergraduate students from local universities. Overall, the institution handles more than 300 students each year at various levels.

All of the research, however, is driven by the institution and its academic collaborators. “The market in Mexico practically has no role on the direction of research,” Ramos said. “No one is interested in funding basic or applied research. For good or bad, we are immune to the ups and downs of the market.”

Instead, INAOE works with collaborators throughout Mexico’s academic system, permitting them to share expensive equipment such as atomic force and transmission electron microscopes.

Ramos said that collaborating with colleagues from his institute is common for the same reason. “So, economical reasons drive our collaborations. The benefit is that you make a lot of friends!”

Not all of the interactions at INAOE occur solely with Mexico’s borders, though. OSA, SPIE and IEEE all have a presence there and throughout Latin America, and Ramos, who works with the SPIE student chapter at INAOE, reports that all three entities provide a great opportunity for travel funding and fee reductions for their conferences.

There also is a steady flow of regional conferences and symposia hosted by various Mexican entities and open to all researchers. These include the upcoming Sixth International Symposium on Advanced Materials and Nanostructures, to be held in Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the southern state of Chiapas, and the 16th International Conference on Photoacoustic and Photothermal Phenomena, to be held in Mérida in the state of Yucatán.

Besides INAOE, Mexico also is home to Centro de Investigaciones en Óptica (Center for Research in Optics) in Léon, Guanajuato. In coordination with the University of Guanajuato, the center provides students opportunities for optics-based master’s and PhD degrees, and fosters both basic and applied research in various optics specialties. In the capital, Mexico City, is Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional (CINVESTAV), or the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute. CINVESTAV does not have an optics/photonics specialty of its own, but rather a wide selection of programs that require knowledge in these areas, such as biotechnology and telecommunications.


In operation since 1972, the optics shop at INAOE allows students to design, fabricate and test components.


Farther south, in Central America, the University of Costa Rica system commands a broad swath of specialties and student and professional researchers. The institution, established in 1940, is composed of several research centers, including ones focused on biotechnology, cell biology, and materials science and engineering.

Dr. Arturo Ramìrez-Porras, the director of Centro de Investigación en Ciencia e Ingenierìa de Materiales (CICIMA, or Materials Science and Engineering Research Center) at the university, said that his organization deals with basic and experimental research on advanced materials in areas such as nanobiomaterials, nanostructured semiconductor materials, polymer science, inhomogeneous materials and graphene.

To advance these fields, Ramìrez’s group uses a wide array of photonics technologies, including spectrophotometry in the range of 200 to 1100 nm, Raman spectrometry, atomic force microscopy and x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, as well as optical and electronic microscopy through university partners.

Ramìrez said that students at CICIMA are attracted because of the center’s history of publications, which usually include them as co-authors in their fields. Students really interested in materials science, he added, usually enter after their second or third undergraduate years and stay until they reach their BS in physics or chemistry. Afterward, they usually enroll in more advanced programs in other countries (mostly because they want to experience new ways of life abroad, he said). The students try to earn the highest degree they can to go on to work in research, and most try to stay abroad after finishing their advanced degrees.


The library on the campus of INAOE.


“They usually go to Europe, Brazil or Argentina,” he said. “The US used to be an attractive destination until September 11. Nowadays, they prefer not to enroll in the US because of the very tight student regulations resulting from that.”

INAOE’s Ramos sees a similar trend among Mexican graduates. On average, he said, about 80 percent of their students end up in academia – or about 90 percent of students who graduated with degrees in astrophysics and optics. It typically is easier for graduates of electronics and computer science programs to find jobs in Mexican or foreign companies. Few students, however, emigrate to pursue advanced degrees, he said.


GLOSSARY
quantum optics
The area of optics in which quantum theory is used to describe light in discrete units or ‘quanta’ of energy known as photons. First observed by Albert Einstein’s photoelectric effect, this particle description of light is the foundation for describing the transfer of energy (i.e. absorption and emission) in light matter interaction.
spectrophotometry
Study of the reflection or transmission properties of specimens as a function of wavelength.
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