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CREOL brings new light to infrared detection

By Mandy Georgi
On September 11, 2011

At the rapid rate technology is evolving, it's hard to believe that TV screens could get any thinner and cell phones are now hand-held computers.

However, scientists never cease to amaze us. Thanks to their curiosity-inspired research, new discoveries and breakthroughs are made daily.

UCF's College of Optics and Photonics researchers have recently discovered an advanced way of detecting infrared light, which was published in September's issue of Nature Photonics, the No. 1 journal for publishing in optics.

Dr. David Hagan and Dr. Eric Van Stryland, both professors at UCF, wrote a paper about the use of extreme non-degenerate two-photon absorption for sensitive mid-infrared detection in wide bandgap semiconductors.

Since the early ‘80s, Hagan and Van Stryland have had a theory that two-photon absorption would be strongly enhanced when two beams of very different wavelengths were used. But it wasn't until about a year ago, with the help of five Ph.D. research scientists, that they were able to jumpstart experimenting.

Dr. Scott Webster, a senior research scientist on the team, explained that work like this couldn't be done 10 years ago.

"It's only through the advancements of laser engineering and laser development design that have allowed this to really happen," Webster said.

After basic measurements showed the strong enhancement, the team had the idea of applying it to infrared detection.

Detecting mid-infrared today requires bulky and expensive Mercury Cadmium Telluride detectors, which get its weight from needing to be liquid nitrogen cooled. This poses the problem of a large, cumbersome body and when it comes to technology, smaller is better.

According to Webster, in their experiment the team used extremely non-degenerate photons and a commercially available detector called Gallium Nitride, allowing them to see the same amount of light, if not a little bit better.

In the next steps of transforming this from a basic research project to an applied one, the team will try to reproduce these results using continuous wave light.

They're talking with various military-funding sources to pursue this.

"There is a need in the military to see infrared light," Webster said. "They can use it for figuring out what materials are made of from a distance."

Think of the combat soldier in Afghanistan who already has more than a dozen pounds of equipment strapped to him. Does he really need a bulky MCT bogging him down, too?

"Right now, it's still in its infancy, and we believe we can improve the efficiency by designing a better detector," Webster said.

So far, the team is both excited and surprised by the amount of interest shown in the work. The article is featured in this month's Nature Photonics.

Having a high profile publication like Nature Photonics put CREOL's name out there is huge and deserves bragging rights, which is something Webster likes.

"They don't publish stuff that's not a game changer or a paradigm shifter," Webster said.

Aside from directing the spotlight on UCF and reining in the publicity, CREOL's current graduate students are sure to benefit from a published discovery like this when it comes to hitting the job market. Having their college's name and research published in high impact journals establishes the credit grad students seek in today's scarce economy.

"It's encouraging that research done at UCF is able to make it into Nature Photonics. The research as a whole is just indicative of the quality of the science facilities that we have here," Lane Martin, a graduate research assistant in CREOL, said.

Matt Reichert, another CREOL graduate research assistant, expressed his enthusiasm.

"The fact that we can go on the edge of technology, the edge of science, and figure out a way to push it to the next level is very exciting to me," Reichert said. "I think the paper is just one example of that."

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