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The Mass Media

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February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
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February 26, 2024

Local Genius

With grant money that he and his research team were awarded by the U.S. Air Force Research Lab, UMass Boston Engineering Program Director Greg Sun could be on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. If his team discovers a way to enable light to emit from silicon, creating silicon lasers, the achievement would revolutionize the technology industry.

“If you can have silicon-based lasers, [you] could potentially integrate that with silicon electronics-a very, very large industry worth tens of billions of dollars each year-and you could create a very powerful chip,” Sun said.

That chip, according to Sun, is a semi-conductor chip that would combine optical capabilities with electronics, enabling silicon chips to be used directly with optical communications, sensor and detector areas, and cash cow industries such as technology and engineering, medicine, communications, and even chemical sensing industries.

Although security is another big industry that would benefit from the invention of silicon lasers-the irony of the U.S. Air Force funding the project isn’t lost on the Engineering Professor-Sun said he’s unable to say if his work would be integrated in weapons manufacturing.

“I don’t know whether they [the U.S. Air Force] will integrate certain devices with their weapons system,” Sun said. “I can’t predict, because right now, the topic itself is very, very fundamental and quite difficult. The Air Force also does a fair amount of basic research, [that may not immediately apply to their systems] and this clearly fits into their mission.”

That mission includes providing grants to fund scientific research, often times at universities. According to Sun, every year, the Air Force releases solicitations on different subjects on which grant funding for research purposes is available.

In 2006, Sun-along with team members from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University-applied for a multi university research initiative grant titled “Modeling of GaN-based Teraherz Emitter and Quantum Dot Lasers with Indirect Barriers”.

Sun and his team were lucky enough to be chosen as one of two teams out of a pool of 25 applicants that would receive half a million dollars over a 5-year period, with UMB receiving a portion equal to $250,000.

“In each topic they probably award one team every year, and that particular year when we applied, we were pretty lucky because we had a good strategy and good team,” Sun said.

Although Sun said him and his team have gotten good results from the mixing of an unconventional set of materials-including silicone and Germanium-in hopes of creating silicon based lasers, they have not yet come to the point of assembling devices.

And even though Sun has been working on this subject for over 15 years, he said material challenges, pressure from the Department of Defense to meet research milestones, and the general difficulty of creating silicon based lasers pose a lot of very real problems for his team. Even so, Sun remained optimistic that he would make scientific history at UMB.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and things can happen in a few years, but it’s very difficult to predict how long this could take,” he said.

Sun has been collaborating with the U.S. Air Force for over 13 years and is currently conducting research for another Air Force funded grant that deals with plasmonic device modeling, a procedure used to enhance light emissions in LED’S-or light emitting devices-such as traffic lights.

Olesia Plokhii can be reached at [email protected]