The solution, though, may be just a photon away if Heidrun Schmitzer has anything to say about it. In between classes, the University’s newest physics professor delves into her interest in optics and mechanics by researching the spin of photons. It’s this spinning of photons that leads to the breakup of communications taking place through glass fibers, such as the ones in fiber-optic cables used in telephone lines and computer connections.
Fiber-optic cables contain long fibers of glass that can transmit information by light signals. Transmitting this data at high speed across long distances, however, requires the glass be extremely pure. Over time, the light disrupts the spin of the photons, and the result is a breakdown of the signal—or static.
“If you transmit data through glass fibers, you unwillingly change the polarization of the light,” says Schmitzer. “You don’t want it to happen, but it does. It scrambles the data. You won’t be able to read, see or hear it anymore.”
This flaw is only noticeable at long distances, she says. Intermediate stations along the way pick up a signal, clean it and then amplify it. Right now this is done electronically.
“I hope that I can do it optically,” she says,” to clean up the polarization while it’s happening.”
In order to figure out a way to fix the polarization optically, Schmitzer must trap minute particles with an intense laser beam in order to study how they move.
“If you have particles that can move on their own, you can hold them back and then conclude how much force this object has to move on its own.”
She studies this movement by trapping particles from crystals in water and putting them under a controlled polarization laser beam. The particles are a micrometer in size. With the laser beam, she brings the particles into motion, their movements driven by the light.
“It shows me something about the crystal itself because it will only rotate if it has certain characteristics. The light goes through the crystal, and by going through the crystal the polarization of the laser light will be changed.”
She started her new research project after coming to Xavier this summer from Bavaria, Germany, when her husband, who is also a professor of physics, landed a position at the University of Cincinnati.
Schmitzer, who is the first full-time female physics professor at Xavier, has set up her lab and plans on eventually getting some of her students to help her with her research. She’s testing five different kinds of crystals.
“In one year I hope to get a patent for the results.” With 19 patents already in hand in the optics field, she still isn’t satisfied. Her infinite curiosity keeps bringing her back to finding solutions to problems.
“I wanted to understand how the world functions, what’s happening around me,” she says. “Physics answers those questions.”
She’s quick to point out, though, that even if she’s successful in finding a way to clean up communication signals optically, it won’t take care of all the static.
“You always have static for various reasons. It could be the wavelength or the material used. This would just take care of one of those reasons.”