University of Chicago to partner in $25M NSF center for optoelectronic, quantum technologies

The National Science Foundation on Sept. 9 announced it will fund a new endeavor to bring atomic-level precision to the devices and technologies that underpin much of modern life, and will transform fields like information technology in the decades to come. The five-year, $25 million grant will found the Center for Integration of Modern Optoelectronic Materials on Demand (IMOD), a collaboration of scientists and engineers at 11 universities led by the University of Washington, of which the University of Chicago is a partner.

IMOD research will center on new semiconductor materials and scalable manufacturing processes for new optoelectronic devices for applications ranging from displays and sensors to a technological revolution, under development today, that’s based on harnessing the principles of quantum mechanics.

“In the early days of electronics, a computer would fill an entire room. Now we all carry around smartphones that are millions of times more powerful in our pockets,” said IMOD director David Ginger, the Alvin L. and Verla R. Kwiram Endowed Professor of Chemistry at the University of Washington, chief scientist at the UW Clean Energy Institute and co-director of NW IMPACT. “Today, we see an opportunity for advances in materials and scalable manufacturing to do the same thing for optoelectronics: Can we take a quantum optics experiment that fills an entire room, and fit thousands—or even millions—of them on a chip, enabling a new revolution? Along the way, we anticipate IMOD’s science will help with a few more familiar challenges, like improving the display of the cell phone you already have in your pocket, so the battery lasts longer.”

Optoelectronics is a field that drives much of modern information technology, clean energy, sensing, and security. Optoelectronic devices are driven by the interaction of light with electronic materials, typically semiconductors. Devices based on optoelectronics include LEDs, semiconductor lasers, image sensors, and the building blocks of several quantum communication and computing technologies. Their applications today include sensors, displays, and data transmission, and optoelectronics is poised to play a critical role in the development of quantum information systems.

But to realize this quantum future, present-day research must develop new materials and new strategies to manufacture them. That’s where IMOD comes in, Ginger said. Building on advances in the synthesis of semiconductor quantum dots and halide perovskites, the center will integrate the work of scientists and engineers from diverse backgrounds, including chemists, materials scientists, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and physicists, in both computational and experimental roles.

“There are a lot of opportunities in this space, especially for a team consisting of so many leaders in their fields,” said Giulia Galli, the Liew Family Professor at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), who is a member of the center specializing in computational simulation for new materials. “I was excited to join the team because this center is reaching for ambitious goals, and I think we have a real potential to make a difference.”

“In the traditional model for academia, individual research groups tend to work separately on narrowly-defined problems,” said Dmitri Talapin, the Ernest DeWitt Burton Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and another member of the center. “But by connecting so many of the people working in this field, I hope we can accomplish something far beyond our individual contributions.”

The center will additionally launch a series of mentorship, team science training, and internship programs for participants, including students from underrepresented groups in STEM and first-generation students. Center scientists will also work with high school teachers on curriculum development programs aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and act as “ambassadors” to K-12 students, introducing them to STEM careers.

A partial list of IMOD’s external partners includes companies such as Amazon, Applied Materials, Corning Incorporated, Microsoft, Nanosys, and FOM Technologies, Inc.; government organizations like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and the Washington State Department of Commerce; and educational partners including GEAR UP at UW, Catalyst @ Penn GSE and the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing at Georgia Tech.

The 11 academic institutions that make up IMOD are the University of Washington; the University of Maryland, College Park; the University of Pennsylvania; Lehigh University; Columbia University; Georgia Institute of Technology; Northwestern University; the City College of New York; the University of Chicago; the University of Colorado at Boulder; and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

—Adapted from an article first published by the University of Washington.