A Duquesne University professor has received a $445,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further develop compounds called diamond-like semiconductors—crystals capable of changing the wavelength and frequency of lasers.
Dr. Jennifer Aitken, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry in Duquesne's Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, has received her third NSF grant to further develop the optics in the semiconductor crystals she has created.
This three-year NSF grant will allow Aitken to develop semiconductors that will shift the wavelengths of laser lights for eventual uses in military, medical, industrial and commercial products. To date, she has received more than $1.3 million in grant funding for her research on these semiconductors.
"We're trying to develop diamond-like semiconductors to be compounds for infrared, nonlinear optical devices," Aitken explained. "When laser light passes through these compounds, a different kind of light comes out. That's the nonlinear aspect. When laser light passes through the crystal, it can produce light that is half the wavelength and double the frequency of the incoming light, and this light can be harnessed for different uses."
For instance, in the military, systems using nonlinear optical crystals already are being used in counter-measure systems to redirect missiles away from a target using infrared radiation or to detect drugs and explosives within containers, signaling what the substance is—from a safer distance.
In medicine, laser surgery using different wavelengths of light could result in less damage to surrounding tissue and shorten healing time. Using these crystals to analyze human breath, looking for the specific biomarkers of conditions such as asthma could mean an easier, less invasive diagnosis of certain diseases and disorders.
Additionally, the blood glucose level could be easily monitored by passing infrared radiation through a diabetic's ear lobe, meaning insulin-dependent diabetics would no longer need to inject themselves.
"We'll be looking for improved crystals that are more durable and cost-effective, developing compounds that can stand up to higher power lasers," Aitken said, explaining that the power of lasers can destroy the semiconductor compounds.
"Some of our materials have shown that they may be better than the commercially available materials."
The NSF grant, which is dedicated to basic science, will support Aitken and her lab as they add to the knowledge of how best to make the crystals and how to grow larger crystals. As an NSF recipient, Aitken also will use a full spectrum of students—high school, undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral fellows—to help train the next generation of scientists and researchers.