Baylor Physicist Receives 2018 National Science Foundation CAREER Award

March 21, 2018
Howard Lee NSF CAREER Awards

Physics professor and Baylor Rising Star researcher Howard Lee, Ph.D., has received a five-year, $500,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for developing ultra-thin, nanoscale optical films with electrically tunable properties.

Dr. Howard Lee’s research in ultra-thin, nano-scale optical films earns a highly coveted NSF CAREER Award

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Written by Gary Stokes, OVPR
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WACO, Texas (March 21, 2018) – Howard Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics and a Baylor University Rising Star researcher, has received a five-year, $500,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for developing ultra-thin, nanoscale optical films with electrically tunable properties.

The films, called metasurfaces, are only a few hundred atoms thick but have the potential to dramatically reduce the size and weight of a vast range of optical and electro-optical devices, while also improving their performance. In one form, the ultrathin metasurfaces serve as “perfect absorbers” because they can absorb 100 percent of the light that falls on them. That property alone could significantly improve efficiency of optical devices that require strong light absorption, such as photovoltaic solar cells.

In two other variants under development, the films might discretely filter out specific colors — wavelengths of light — in the visible and invisible regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, or they could be used to steer beams of light with exacting precision, all by varying the electrical voltage applied to the film. Lee says this ability to manipulate the electro-optical properties of the films by controlling the voltage is key to the project.

“We really want to demonstrate this electrical tunability, so we are trying to develop prototypes to show functionality for [the] perfect absorber, the color filter and the beam steering metasurfaces,” Lee said. “At the moment, no one is actually demonstrating this efficiently on all these properties.”

Dwight Russell, Ph.D., professor and interim chair of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Truell Hyde, Ph.D., vice provost for research, both agree that the NSF CAREER Award is a well-deserved recognition for Lee and his innovative work in the area of optical metasurfaces.

“I cannot be more pleased for him and look forward to the future research this award enables him to pursue,” Russell said.

“Dr. Lee is an outstanding young researcher and clearly worthy of the NSF CAREER award. He has a very bright future and I look forward to watching it unfold,” said Truell Hyde, Ph.D., vice provost for research.

Beyond funding research, NSF CAREER grants carry a rigorous educational outreach mandate for recipients. This summer at his lab, Lee will begin hosting electro-optics students from the nearby Texas State Technical College (TSTC) Waco campus to give them experience in nano-technology beyond what TSTC is currently able to provide.

“In the Waco area, nano-technology [training] is not common, so we focus on the two-year colleges to give those students experience in advanced nano-technology that they cannot get anywhere else,” Lee said.

In addition, Lee will partner with Baylor’s Mayborn Museum to participate in its Portal to the Public Network designed to stimulate interest among the general public in current research and innovation. Through informal learning sessions the Portal to the Public Network, initially funded by Baylor’s Museum and Library Services and the NSF, connects public audiences with local scientists and engineers. Lee also will give an introductory lecture on nano-optics and potential applications at one of the museum’s regular “Science Thursdays” events.

The significance of Lee’s metasurfaces and nanophotonics research is underscored by his receipt just last year of a Young Faculty Award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for related nanophotonic work in nonlinear-optical regime.

“When you are winning grant awards like these, it enhances the research team’s confidence,” he said. “This is also good for my students because they have more resources and they know we are doing something great and we are competing with the top schools— MIT, Stanford and others — so they can get some confidence. We can actually show that we have projects that can really compete with [projects at] the top schools.”


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