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University of Virginia School of Engineering Emerges as Global Hub of High-Frequency Materials

1139 Days ago

Researchers at UVA Engineering developed new technology that shed light on the black hole seen around the world, mapped the ozone hole, and can pave the way for 5G

Charlottesville, Va., May 22, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Last month, an international team of astronomers and engineers used a global network of telescopes to capture the first-ever photo of a black hole about 55 million light-years from Earth, an image that captivated the world. To generate that visual, the constellation of telescopes relied on a set of ultra low-noise, millimeter, superconducting detectors. Those detectors, designed and developed in the labs of the University of Virginia School of Engineering and National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), are a testament to the school’s rich 50-year legacy of excellence in high frequency (THz) materials, devices, circuits and systems.

“Almost all of the specialized superconducting detectors involved in this black hole discovery were developed and micro-fabricated by our research and development group in the University of Virginia Microfabrication Laboratory (UVML),” said Art Lichtenberger, director of the lab and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Virginia School of Engineering.

These millimeter detectors, developed over decades by engineers and astronomers at UVA and NRAO, operate at 230 GHz, about 100 times higher than Wi-Fi, and are highly specialized and refined, requiring years of development and construction.

Lichtenberger’s group fabricated 132 of these specialized detectors, which were essential to the discovery of the black hole by the largest and most sensitive millimeter radio telescope facility in the world, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile; additionally, two UVA-developed detectors were also attached to the Arizona Submillimeter Telescope, the UMass Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) in Mexico and the South Pole Telescope. Together, they comprise four of the eight radio astronomy observatories in the Event Horizon constellation that visualized the black hole.

As a result of this discovery, astronomers are now positioned to create and test new theories about the evolution of star systems, pulsars, quasars and galaxies.

“These superconducting detectors are at the heart of the radio astronomical telescope,” said Lichtenberger. “They translate, without introducing significant noise, extremely weak, high-frequency information traveling through the heavens from regions millions of light years away, paving the way for now-iconic images such as the black hole.”

“If you think about it, it is astonishing; the photons from this black hole have been traveling in space for 55 million years, and the first component these photons encounter at radio telescopes after that journey are superconducting detectors that were made in the basement of UVA’s Thornton Hall,” said Robert Weikle, a fellow lab team member and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

An Upward Trajectory for UVA Microfabrication Laboratories

UVA Microfabrication Laboratories has served at the heart of a rapidly growing THz field since the early 1970s, when it launched the revolutionary semiconductor Schottky barrier diode as a detector in conjunction with National Radio Astronomy Observatory. In just a decade, UVA Microfabrication Laboratories emerged as a widely recognized, global supplier of the world’s leading Schottky detectors, which have offered measurements that shaped our understanding of star formation--and established the link between ozone depletion and greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the rest of the 20th century, researchers extended the frequency range of these diodes, supporting some of astronomy’s most notable missions including: the Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite, Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter, US Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit and the US Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.

Now, UVA Microfabrication Laboratories is the state’s flagship university nano-micro fabrication facility, spear-heading multidisciplinary research and educational activities that span high-speed THz and infrared (IR) systems, communications, biotechnology and nanotechnology. This research is being led by professors Weikle, Lichtenberger, Scott Barker, Joe Campbell, Andreas Beling and Steven Bowers.

Along with scientists Jian Zhang, Michael Cyberey, Keye Sun, Yang Shen and more than 30 graduate students, that team is developing state-of-the-art electronic, photonic and superconducting devices, circuits and micromachined components that address the limitations of conventional electronics, supporting a wave of future innovations that include:

  • Lightweight compact and low-noise heterogeneously integrated photodetectors for Radio Frequency (RF) Photonics and 5G Communications
  • Micromachined silicon platforms to enable emerging 5G, wireless IoT platforms, and radar sensors for autonomous vehicles
  • THz software defined radios for next-generation communication systems (Beyond 5G)
  • New superconducting circuits for astronomy and quantum computing
  • Second-generation detectors for the Event Horizon and other astronomical observatories

With $10 million in recent investment from the University of Virginia’s Strategic Investment Fund for critical equipment, and more than $15 million from UVA and the School of Engineering, UVA Microfabrication Laboratories is able to double the footprint of its facility, create new capabilities in nano biology, and support the launch of UVA’s Multifunctional Materials Integration (MMI) initiative. Essentially, UVA Microfabrication Laboratories is in a prime position to develop cutting-edge high-frequency materials and circuits that can change society as we know it.

An Innovation Ecosystem in Charlottesville

UVA Microfabrication Laboratories’ contributions would not be possible without its long-term partner, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, founded in 1956 to provide design collaboration and state-of-the-art telescope facilities for the international scientific community. For nearly 50 years, the two entities have joined together to establish world-renowned low-noise detectors, most notably making a first appearance on the Kitt Peak 12-meter Telescope, which first spotted most of the known interstellar molecules known to mankind. Their collaborations have not only been essential to studies of the composition of interstellar gas clouds and stars, but the creation of the astronomical instruments that are able to make iconic discoveries like the recent imaging of black holes millions of light years away.

Such collaborations have led to the formation of companies such as Virginia Diodes Inc., which spun out of the terahertz research program at the University of Virginia in 1996. Thomas  Crowe and William Bishop, both originally based in UVA Engineering’s Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, formed Virginia Diodes Inc. to spark research, development, manufacturing and sales of terahertz technologies, components and systems that can help record groundbreaking scientific measurements. As a result of their work, Virginia Diodes Inc. technology now can be found in imaging systems for security (personnel) scanners, reference transmitters and receivers for the development of advanced automotive radars and 5G (and beyond) communication systems.

In fact, VDI’s receivers and devices have enabled NASA to form the first global map of ice crystals in the upper atmosphere and record the first astronomical measurement of Helium Hydride (HeH+), also known as the oldest molecule in the universe.

Along with the National Ground Intelligence Center and Dominion MicroProbes (another spin-off company from the University of Virginia) founded by Weikle, Lichtenberger, and Barker, Charlottesville has emerged as the world’s  innovation ecosystem for high-frequency materials and circuits, supporting innovations that have an impact here at home, across the globe and in galaxies millions of light years away.


About the UVA Microfabrication Laboratories (UMVL)

The UVA Microfabrication Laboratories (UMVL) is the state’s flagship university device fabrication facility. UVML provides a dust-free, temperature- and humidity-controlled laboratory environment and is equipped with complex tools for the design, fabrication and investigation of electronic, photonic, bio, and microfluidic devices and circuits. The Lab supports three UVA schools (Engineering and Applied Science, Arts and Sciences, and Medicine) in multidisciplinary research and educational activities, training its students in research methods and skills with high value in the wider economy. UVML also provides important research infrastructure support to the University’s Advanced Research Institute (ARI), facilitating research and development related to defense and intelligence challenges.

About the University of Virginia School of Engineering

As part of the top-ranked, comprehensive University of Virginia, UVA Engineering is one of the nation’s oldest and most respected engineering schools. Our mission is to make the world a better place by creating and disseminating knowledge and by preparing future engineering leaders. Outstanding students and faculty from around the world choose UVA Engineering because of our growing and internationally recognized education and research programs. UVA is the No. 1 public engineering school in the country for the percentage of women graduates, among schools with at least 75 degree earners; the No. 1 public engineering school in the United States for the four-year graduation rate of undergraduate students; and the top engineering school in the country for the rate of Ph.D. enrollment growth. Learn more at engineering.virginia.edu.

Elizabeth Thiel Mather
University of Virginia School of Engineering

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