Nick Fontaine never imagined he would end up working alongside many of the world’s leading researchers in optical networking.

 “When I was younger, I used to do a lot of computer programming,” Fontaine said.  “I didn’t know much about engineering before going to college. It was really just blind luck that I ended up in optical engineering.”

It was working in the lab at University of California at Davis as an undergraduate that first sparked Nick’s interest in optical networking. UC Davis has one of the few dedicated optical engineering programs in the country. It was the hands-on experience with optical networking equipment that really attracted him to the field. “It was really exciting working with lasers in the lab,” Nick added.

A Perfect Fit

It wasn’t just blind luck that brought him to Bell Labs, however. “When I was working on my PhD, Most of the famous optical researchers I read about and looked up to were at Bell Labs,” Nick recalled. “I really didn’t think I would be able to get a job here.” 

But Nick’s PhD advisor, Dr. S. J. Ben Yoo, felt differently. Dr. Ben You had worked at Bellcore throughout most of the 90s and worked closely with researchers at Bell Labs, developing strong connections in the optical research department along the way. Dr. Ben Yoo thought Nick’s research interests — most notably some work he’d done related to Space Division Multiplexing (SDM) — were a perfect fit with Bell Labs, and he aggressively worked his contacts to get Nick an interview.

It didn’t hurt that Nick had Dr. Richard Heritage, also on the staff of UC Davis and luminary in the field of optical research, lobbying on his behalf. Dr. Heritage had spent 8 years at Bell Labs during the late 70s and early 80s, and had worked side by side with some leading researchers who were still on staff at Bell Labs.

“When I interviewed, I got to put faces to all the famous names — Peter Winzer, Alan Gnauk, Inuk Kang, Greg Raybon, Chris Doerr,” Nick said.  “I was immediately sold on coming here.”

Patterns of Light

When he joined Bell Labs in 2011, Nick didn’t have a particular area of research in mind. Rather he was interested in collaborating with the researchers whose work he had followed. Once he was here, he was exposed to a huge diversity of ideas and subjects, ultimately getting the opportunity to work with researchers who were tackling one of the most complex technical challenges in the industry, spatial division multiplexing (SDM). SDM is a technique which will make it possible to establish multiple, parallel spatial paths in a single strand of optical fiber — think of packing multiple super highways (and all the traffic they carry) into the space taken up by a single super highway today.

“Most ideas come from seeing and being exposed to many other ideas.”

Ultimately, Nick developed a new method for injecting light into the different “modes” or pathways through multimode fibers. He recognized that the various signals being combined into the fiber didn’t need to be injected into individual modes of the fiber. Instead, as long as the number of signals and modes overlap, the injection can be accomplished with very low loss and excellent uniformity.

This innovation enabled Nick to significantly decrease the size of the multiplexer, from a tabletop full of optical components to a block of glass a few millimeters on a side.

Interestingly, this technique arose out of a discussion Nick had when interviewing for jobs after receiving his PhD. “I think most ideas come from seeing and being exposed to many other ideas,” Nick said.

For instance, he had been exposed to photonic lanterns, which had been developed for astronomy, and realized they had the potential to be adapted to optical networks.

“When I went to do a Job interview at the University of Sydney, I met one of the researchers who had been developing the lanterns for astronomy. Our conversation stuck in my head, and later at Bell Labs when we were looking for ways to make spatial multiplexers, I contacted the astronomers,” Nick said. “We modified the design to make it compatible with SDM, and demonstrated that they actually work in a communication system.”

Through this development, Nick removed a fundamental obstacle in the quest of revolutionary new transmission systems of the future. His work in this area also garnered him a bit of recognition. In June 2013 Nick joined Popular Science magazine’s “The Brilliant 10,” an annual list of the world’s top researchers under the age of 35.