UTA researcher earns grant to develop power-scalable compact semiconductor laser

Powerful little lasers

Conventional high-power lasers are bulky and require equipment that makes them difficult to use in portable platforms, but a University of Texas at Arlington engineer is working to develop a semiconductor laser that addresses these issues.

Weidong Zhou, a professor in the Electrical Engineering Department, is the primary investigator in a 5-year, $3 million Multidisciplinary Research Initiatives grant from the High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office to develop a high-power semiconductor laser that is compact, efficient and power-scalable.

Zhou is collaborating with Ganesh Balakrishnan of the University of New Mexico, Shanhui Fan of Stanford University and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Semiconductor lasers use a cavity to create feedback that bounces light back and forth, eventually sending the light from the face of the laser.

The laser has become an important tool in forging the next generation of innovative technologies, with an anticipated revenue of more than $10 billion in 2016.

However challenges remain in scaling laser power toward kilo- and mega-watts level, while maintaining excellent beam quality, high-energy efficiency and compact size.

Zhou and the team will rely on nanotechnology principles and structures toward power-scalable, high-power lasers.  

“We have been looking at various aspects of lasers in areas where higher-power infrared lasers would be highly desirable – the military, manufacturing and security, for example – and how to address the major challenges associated with those applications,” Zhou said.

“If we are successful in creating a semiconductor laser based on nanotechnologies, we can greatly reduce the size of these lasers while increasing their power and efficiency.”

The laser could eventually be built on a semiconductor wafer. Control electronics and packaging necessary to operate the laser could increase its size to that of a computer, considerably smaller than current laser operation packages.

Some promising applications for these lasers would be precision laser-cutting and 3-D machining that could be performed on a tabletop machine instead of a machine that takes up much of a room and LiDAR sensing for autonomous vehicles. LiDAR is Light, Detection and Ranging and gives autonomous vehicles awareness of their surroundings. Smaller platforms also would be much more cost-effective.

Zhou is a Fellow of the International Society for Optical Engineering. He has more than 300 journal publications and conference presentations. He joined UTA in 2004 after a brief career in industry. He has been the primary investigator on research grants totaling nearly $8 million and has been involved with more than 40 projects totaling more than $20 million since 2004.

The Electrical Engineering Department is an integral component of UTA’s College of Engineering, which is the third-largest in Texas with an enrollment of more than 7,200.

Peter Crouch, dean of the College of Engineering, commended Zhou’s innovations as a model of the University’s work to advance Global Environmental Impact under the Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact .

“Dr. Zhou has long been a leader in nanotechnology and optics, and this new grant could change how lasers are used,” Crouch said. “If lasers are smaller, lighter and less costly, they can be applied to many more platforms, with possibilities for their use that have not been considered previously.”

Several other UTA electrical engineers are conducting research in optics, including:

  • Professor Robert Magnusson is a charter Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and a Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He leads UTA’s Nanophotonics Device Group, which pursues theoretical and experimental research in periodic nanostructures, nanolithography, nanophotonics, nanoelectronics, nanoplasmonics, and optical bio- and chemical sensors. Magnusson holds 30 issued and pending patents and has garnered more than $10 million in research funding and endowments for UTA since becoming the Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair in Nanoelectronics in 2008.
  • Professor Michael Vasilyev is a Fellow of the Optical Society and holds 10 issued patents. His research focuses on nonlinear and quantum optics, optical communication systems and devices, and nanophotonics. He has been the primary investigator on research grants totaling more than $3.4 million since joining UTA in 2003.
  • Assistant Professor Alice Sun earned a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2016 and has been the primary investigator on research grants totaling more than $900,000 since beginning her career at the UTA in 2013. Her research interests include optofluidic biomedical and chemical sensing; nanophotonics and biophotonics; microfluidics and point-of-care devices; and bio-inspired photonic devices and systems.

-- Written by Jeremy Agor