Purdue Today

September 11, 2009

Professor to discuss science of light in McCoy lecture

Vladimir Shalaev, the Robert and Anne Burnett Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will present this year's McCoy Distinguished Lecture on Sept. 16.

Shalaev will speak about "Transforming Light with Metamaterials: A New Paradigm for the Science of Light" at 3:30 p.m. in Fowler Hall, Stewart Center.

He has specialized in a new research field called transformation optics, which may usher in a host of radical advances including a cloak of invisibility and ultra-powerful microscopes and computers by harnessing nanotechnology and "metamaterials."

The field applies mathematical principles similar to those in Einstein's theory of general relativity. The list of possible breakthroughs includes a cloak of invisibility; computers and consumer electronics that use light instead of electronic signals to process information; a "planar hyperlens" that could make optical microscopes 10 times more powerful and able to see objects as small as DNA; advanced sensors; and more efficient solar collectors.

Current optical technologies are limited because, for the efficient control of light, components cannot be smaller than the size of the wavelengths of light. Transformation optics sidesteps this limitation using a new class of materials, or metamaterials, which are able to guide and control light on all scales, including the scale of nanometers, or billionths of a meter.

Shalaev also recently helped create the tiniest laser since lasers were first demonstrated  nearly 50 years ago, paving the way for a host of innovations, including superfast computers that use light instead of electrons to process information, advanced sensors and imaging.

According to Shalaev, because the new device, called a "spaser," is the first of its kind to emit visible light, it represents a critical component for possible future technologies based on "nanophotonic" circuitry. Such circuits will require a laser-light source, but current lasers can't be made small enough to integrate them into electronic chips.

Now, researchers have overcome this obstacle by harnessing clouds of electrons called "surface plasmons" instead of the photons that make up light in order to create the tiny spasers.

Shalaev is the winner of the 2009 Herbert Newby McCoy Award, presented annually to a Purdue student or faculty “in the science departments of Purdue making the greatest contribution of the year to science,” based on nominations by peers. The award was established in 1964 in memory of McCoy, a Purdue alumnus of the Department of Chemistry.