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Assistant Professor Shengxi Huang (left) and Wenjing Wu (right), a graduate student in Huang’s lab, examine a 2D material. Credit: Kelby Hochreither.

Assistant Professor Shengxi Huang will explore fundamental research that could drastically enhance sensors, paving the way for more powerful electronics

By Erin Cassidy Hendrick

The United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research recently awarded Shengxi Huang, assistant professor of electrical engineering and biomedical engineering at Penn State, a Young Investigator Research Program grant to investigate fundamental, new ways to create next-generation sensors, with the goal of improving a myriad of applications in electromagnetics.  

According to the AFOSR, the grant program, which will provide Huang with $450,000 over three years, was created to support early career scientists and engineers who have “shown exceptional ability and promise.” 

Huang’s project will explore the development of two-dimensional, or 2D, materials, which are usually only a few atomic layers thick, with the ability to sense signals using superradiance.

“Two-dimensional materials are extremely thin and sensitive to external signals,” Huang said. “That is one big advantage — they are extremely sensitive to the things we want to sense, which are electromagnetic fields.”

Superradiance uses cohesively linked, light emitting sensors to optically detect electromagnetic waves. Instead of individual sensors working in tandem across a material, the tight coupling within a superradiant ensemble could provide a sensitivity that is unfathomable in current technologies. 

“When you have many emitters that can talk to each other and emit light coherently and collectively at the same time, that can create the quantum process known as superradiance,” Huang said. “However, studies on superradiance so far have barely gone beyond the mere demonstration of the phenomenon, and its use in sensing has largely remained unexplored.”

When these emitters are coupled, the amount of noise reduces, which can be an issue when using traditional optical sensors. 

“With superradiance, we can be very certain that any electromagnetic changes are detected, and it reduces the uncertainty of the signals,” Huang said. 

By translating this concept in 2D materials, Huang aims to develop drastically more sensitive sensors. These sensors could enable faster and more powerful electronics, potentially advancing the mission of the Air Force. 

“This is the core of the project — understanding superradiance as a unique optical emission process and the potential for sensing,” she said. “When you combine the strengths of 2D materials and superradiance, they can give unique advantages, mainly the exquisite sensitivity. These enhancements could improve wireless networking sensing, 5G communications, GPS and many other applications the Air Force needs every day.”

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