Quantum photonics for the masses

Carlos Silva

Carlos Silva

Credit: Amélie Philibert, Université de Montréal

In 5 seconds

As director of the Courtois Institute and new recipient of a Canada Excellence Research Chair at UdeM, physicist Carlos Silva strives to shed much-needed light on his obscure domain.

Carlos Silva often has to explain what he does.

He's a physicist who specializes in materials used in quantum photonics. What are those? Silva has to back up a bit and define simple photonics: light that's used for a particular function, such as lasers in printers or solar cells in garden lights. Clear enough? Well, quantum photonics are on a whole other level. You have to know a little bit about quantum mechanics to understand them, and frankly, anything quantum is a little beyond the ken of the general public.

Silva hopes to change that, by letting people know about the fundamental research he does at Université de Montréal. He's just been named a Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in quantum photonics, a position that provides him with an annual $1 million in federal grants annually over eight years and gives Silva a public platform to show how important it is for society to have scientists like him produce new knowledge.

"It is a challenge in my profession – meaningful communication to the broader public is always a challenge," admits Silva, who in July took over as director of UdeM's Institut Courtois, which was created in 2021 to conduct basic research "at the intersection of new materials, quantum physics and artificial intelligence" and which features star researchers such as Yoshua Bengio and Gilles Brassard and now Silva himself.

"Part of the issue is trying to explain how university research gets funded, and the other is to show how valid and valuable a deliverable like ours is," Silva says. "My mission is not to produce a particular application or device, something that the greater public is going to go out and buy in seven years and use in their daily life. It is simply to produce new knowledge that will advance science and hopefully lead to conceptual revolutions that may ultimately produce new technologies."

'Revolutions are more profitable'

After all, as Silva points out, in science, "revolutions are more profitable than simple incremental improvements." Take the birth of quantum mechanics and general relativity a century ago. "Nobody at the time was thinking of computers and telecommunications and GPS navigation," Silva says, "but these all came out of physics at a fundamental level. And so it's true: new knowledge can be transformative and of great benefit to everyone. It's what a creative society does."

In his dual role as a CERC recipient and head of the Institut Courtois, Silva plans to engage in research that is in the public interest and also to develop his research organization into a world-class magnet for future talent. 

"My research chair is funded by the Canadian government and that's funded by the taxpayers and I have to produce something that benefits Canada," Silva says.

"The Institute, on the other hand, is funded by a large private donation [$159 million from the Fondation Courtois, chaired by Quebec businessman Jacques Courtois] with the very specific objective of trying to promote here in Montreal a culture of creativity of the kind you find in hotspots of new technology like Silicon Valley and the Boston area."

The mission of the Institute, he adds "is not to produce incubators for 10 new start-up companies. Rather, the goal is to develop world-class activities in fundamental science that lead to creativity and that will eventually bring a Nobel Prize here. It's like what Bell Labs created in the 1960s and '70s: developing fundamental science that leads to big breakthroughs."

Materials 'made by humans'

With research to be carried out at the Institut Courtois's labs at UdeM's new Sciences Complex on the MIL Campus, Silva's CERC is in "light-matter interactions in photonic materials," which he explains "are made by humans: synthetic materials ranging from organic to hybid organic-inorganic to inorganic, produced by chemists and engineers."

Born and raised in Mexico City and Venezuela, Silva comes by his interest in science naturally, stoked from a young age first by his family, then by teachers and by mentors. In the 1990s Silva moved to the United States on a scholarship from the Institute of International Education, obtaining a bachelor's degree, double-majoring in chemistry and physics, from Luther College in Iowa and then a Ph.D in chemical physics from the University of Minnesota.

In 2001 he moved to England as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge’s famous Cavendish Laboratory under Professor Sir Richard Friend, and became an advanced research fellow of the the U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in 2001. In 2005, Canada beckoned: Silva took up a post at UdeM as a Canada research chair and assistant professor of physics. Over the next decade, "I rose up the ranks," he recalls, becoming a full professor in 2015. But once again, the U.S. called, "and I left in 2017 for Georgia Tech," the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Now he's back at UdeM, thanks to the double opportunity his CERC and the Institut Courtois appointment provides him "to grow in a way that is unprecedented," both professionally and personally. "Montreal is actually where I have lived continuously for the longest," says Silva, a dual Mexican-Canadian citizen.

Recruiting for six chairs

At the Institut Courtois, he intends now to "go out and recruit people who are going to be game-changing for us," young scientists who are already prominent in their fields. "We have the ability to recruit people of very high caliber and try to establish a research environment that will be a platform for expanded creativity, expanded excellence and so on." The Institute will be awarding six chairs; he occupies one, as director; two were announced in late September (William Witczak-Krempa in physics, Michael Dollé in chemistry); and three will come "over the next few years."

In his spare time, Silva travels back and forth to Mexico, rides horses (growing up, he competed nationally in equestrian sports), nurtures his son's obsession with lasers and his daughter's with literature and drama, tinkers around the house ("I'm manual, very much an experimentalist"), and indulges his biggest hobby, cooking, especially Chinese and Mexican.

"Sometimes it's good to just disconnect from your work – from lasers, from personnel issues at the Institute, from grant proposals – and apply your mind to everyday things, and cooking is a good way to do that," he explains.

"With enough practice, one can get to be good and also creative. It's always about this: how can I turn what I'm doing into something new?"

About this CERC

Canada Excellence Research Chair in Light-Matter Interactions in Photonic Materials

Quantum photonics harnesses the unique properties of light in a precise quantum state for cutting-edge technologies like quantum computing, cryptography, and teleportation. These applications involve generating, manipulating, and detecting photons. Understanding how particles interact with their environment is vital to develop scalable quantum-photonics materials and determine the emitted light’s quantum state.

The CERC aims to comprehend and control the quantum dynamics of light-induced excited states in condensed matter, influencing whether light emission occurs in a quantum or classical regime.

Specifically, it will use laser bursts that are as short as a millionth of a billionth of a second to probe the way in which quantum information is lost by interactions between the light-prepared states and their environment. Secondly it will implement light in a well-defined, 'entangled' quantum state, and measure the change of the quantum state of light as a result of light-matter interactions. These two parallel approaches will enable a complete comprehension of the quantum dynamics necessary for the development of quantum photonics technologies.

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