UMass Dartmouth professor gets $1 million for some 'light' research

Prof. Yifei Li of Walpole earns Air Force grant for photonics study

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Professor Yifei Li is focused on something that makes modern life possible, from cell phones to the internet: light, which is used to transmit the enormous amounts of data used every second of every day in the information economy.

And now, Dr. Li's research in the field of photonics is looking so promising the Department of the Air Force is investing in his work to the tune of $999,630 over the next five years.

"I'm grateful to the Department of the Air Force for giving me the opportunity to pursue basic scientific research work in this critical field," said Dr. Li. "This gives me and my team the chance to explore some novel ideas and move the field forward."

Dr. Li is trying to create a photonic integrated circuit, or IC -- which could lead to changing everything we use, from cellular radio networks that allow us to use cell phones and Wi-Fi to phased array radars that track airplanes in flight.

From the creation of photonics in the 1960s until now, light has been used to beam information between two points: there is a modulator to send the signal, and there is detector to receive it.

This kind of conventional analog electronics, which depends on modulators and detectors built with silicon, has severe limitations -- the most important of which is that scientists are experiencing diminishing returns in the amount of information that can be transferred between the two points.

The new photonic approach being investigated by Dr. Li promises to overcome this limitation by combining both points, which eliminates the need to beam information between them.

As part of his research, Dr. Li builds his own photonic semiconductor microchips to create this new type of hyper-versatile electronics.

The work is so complex and demanding it's hard to find assistants. "I need them for at least three years," says Dr. Li. "The first year is just to train them."

The field is so small and so expert that Dr. Li is putting out the call to postgrads and postdocs who want to change photonics: "If you want to specialize in radio frequency photonics," he says, "don't go to MIT. Come to UMass Dartmouth."

Dr. Li is collaborating with colleagues across the country at the University of California Santa Barbara, the University of Texas at Dallas, and Southern Methodist University.

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