Institute of Physics awards Newton Medal to Eli Yablonovitch


By Sarah Yang, UC Berkeley


The United Kingdom’s Institute of Physics has awarded its prestigious Isaac Newton Medal and Prize to Eli Yablonovitch, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences and a pioneer in the field of optoelectronics and nanophotonics.


The institute announced the award July 1, citing Yablonovitch’s “visionary and foundational contributions to photonic nanostructures.” The Newton Medal is the highest accolade of the Institute of Physics, and the institute’s only award that is internationally open.


“I am deeply honored, and also humbled by the great distinction of the previous winners of the Newton Medal,” said Yablonovitch, who also has a research appointment at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.


Yablonovitch is known for his seminal work on crystal structures that exhibit photonic bandgaps, which limit the propagation of electromagnetic waves at certain frequencies.


Photonic bandgaps are often compared with semiconductors that control the movement of electrons. Instead of manipulating the flow of electrical current, photonic bandgaps regulate the movement of photons by blocking specific wavelengths of light.


In its citation, the Institute of Physics credited photonic crystals for a “true paradigm-shift in photonics,” noting that the structures “are now used in research areas as diverse as quantum computation, nanoscale imaging and sensing, photovoltaics, optical interconnects, and high performance light-emitting diodes.”


In the animal world, photonic crystals have now been identified within the coloration of peacocks, parrots, chameleons, butterflies and many other species.


The photonics crystal research illustrates the potential of basic science to shape the direction of real-world technology.


“It is wonderful to weave fundamental physics together with applications,” said Yablonovitch. “Truly useful applied work must rely upon new fundamental physical understanding.”


The institute also noted Yablonovitch’s work on the problem of solar cell efficiency, a research field he continues to pursue as group leader in the Department of Energy’s Light-Materials Interaction Energy Frontier Research Center at Berkeley Lab.


Based in London, the Institute of Physics is a scientific charity that works to advance physics education, research and application. In addition to receiving a medal, 1,000 British pounds in prize money and a certificate, Newton awardees are invited to give a talk at the institute.


Yablonovitch will attend an awards dinner at the institute on Nov. 5 and give his lecture the following day.


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