"We have successfully integrated lasers, photonics, nanotechnology and biotechnology. No one else has that. This program in biophotonics is truly multidisciplinary-it's at the cellular level, the tissue level, and even the clinical level."
Multidisciplinary spirit drives discoveries from new materials to medicine
Based on harnessing the power of light, photonics is the information-processing counterpart of electronics, using photons instead of electrons to far more efficiently process or transmit information, whether that is inside a microchip, a drug delivery device or even a living cell.
Not yet two years old, the UB institute has leapt ahead so far that it is no longer simply participating in this materials science revolution, but, in certain key areas, is leading it.
In May, the U.S. Department of Defense chose the institute to head up a world-class consortium of researchers at UB, the University of California at Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Washington and Yale University in a $5 million grant to develop nanoscopic materials for a new generation of IT systems.
The goal is to develop technologies that simply are not possible with conventional microelectronics, such as computer chips. It is envisioned that portions of these new technologies will assemble themselves, mimicking the self-assembly propensities of biological systems, resulting in products such as tents, planes and other vehicles with photonic coatings that convert sunlight into current and hence provide power for electrical systems within them; IT components that can operate at speeds up to terabits per second, about ten thousand times faster than most current desktop systems; and nanobatteries made of nanomaterials, capable of generating maximum amounts of current in an extremely tiny package.
The federal grant provides for the establishment at UB of a Center for Advanced Information Technology, a national resource for the collaborations that will develop these systems, with Prasad as its director.
Also in May, an additional $8 million in peer-reviewed research funding was awarded by the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research to the institute to apply its expertise in photonics to next-generation IT systems. The grant was part of an award to establish an "IT Collaboratory" at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Also participating is the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. And this fall, the institute was awarded a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the first NSF-funded training program in biophotonics in the United States. Directed by Alexander Cartwright, UB associate professor of electrical engineering and institute deputy director, the program will produce graduates capable of crossing the various disciplines necessary to advance biophotonics research.
"The multidisciplinary environment that we have created at the institute has been a major driving force in obtaining this support," says Prasad, who also has appointments in the UB departments of electrical engineering and medicine. "Credit goes to the real, not virtual, interaction that occurs among all of us at UB and with our research partners at other institutions."
In areas like nanophotonics, molecular electronics and optoelectronics, such critical collaborations are the engines of major technological achievements.
Cartwright notes that with a truly multidisciplinary approach to materials and device development, basic researchers are able to understand what their work will make possible at the prototype stage, while providing engineers with an understanding of the basic issues that need to be resolved.
"What this gives us is the ability to see these new technologies all the way through from basic materials to applications," he says.
And while most academic institutions understand the value of such cross-disciplinary interactions, many have not had similar success putting them into practice. Prasad and others at the institute recount numerous visits from peers at major universities, many of whom have expressed admiration and enthusiasm for the high level of cooperation between scientists and engineers in so many disciplines. More than one has expressed regret that such cooperative environments do not exist at their home institutions.
Indeed, the backgrounds of researchers who work at or are affiliated with the institute range from chemistry and physics to civil engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, medicine and dentistry. Institute researchers also are working together with scientists at its affiliate, UB's Center for Advanced Photonic and Electronic Materials, where UB physicists are leaders on a $10 million multi-institution grant on new electronic materials from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Photonics advances at the institute are being reported on a host of fronts, ranging from efforts aimed at developing the world's first photonic computer chip to development of a prototype "nanoclinic," capable of carrying optical probes, genes or drugs to living cells.
In collaborations with other health-care institutions in Western New York, including Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI), photonics researchers at the institute are tackling ways to make photodynamic cancer therapy more effective for deep tumors, as well as providing cellular probes that track the progress of a drug through a cancer cell.
The institute's comprehensive program in biophotonics, which distinguishes it from most other photonics centers in the world, augments the university's efforts to exploit Western New York's strengths in the biomedical sciences with a unique combination of expertise and resources.
"We have successfully integrated lasers, photonics, nanotechnology and biotechnology," says Prasad. "No one else has that. This program in biophotonics is truly multidisciplinary-it's at the cellular level, the tissue level, and even the clinical level."
"The school of medicine is very excited about the institute," says Bruce A. Holm, senior associate vice president for health affairs and a deputy director of the institute. "Our interest is related to the development of new therapeutic modalities for the treatment of conditions ranging from cancer to skin disease and to the opportunity to use the institute as a mechanism for establishing a true biomedical-engineering program that will expand our current activities in other areas."
In addition to advancing the core focus areas of institute researchers, the resources and expertise of the institute are helping faculty throughout UB and affiliated Western New York institutions to move their research forward more quickly. In all, more than 25 faculty, from UB, RPCI and associated hospitals are now affiliated with the institute, and that number is increasing.
"If I had to close my eyes and try to dream up an organization that would be the best possible organization to take my research to the next step, I would be dreaming of the institute," says Robert E. Baier, professor of oral diagnostic sciences in the School of Dental Medicine, and director of the National Science Foundation-funded Industry-University Cooperative Research Center on Biosurfaces at UB.
Baier used the institute's laser confocal microscope and atomic force microscope to demonstrate that bacteria, which he had isolated, could be a potential candidate to function as a semiconductor. Next, he wants to attach micro-wires to the new "biochip" and monitor how electron-hole flow is modulated by light-stimulated bacterial activity, work that will again be facilitated by equipment and personnel available at the institute.
Another example of the comprehensive approach to biophotonics is a collaboration between the institute and the Laboratory of Flow Cytometry at RPCI. Carleton C. Stewart, who directs that lab and who is adjunct professor of microbiology at UB, is working with the institute to develop advanced technologies in flow cytometry. Flow cytometers are used primarily in diagnostic and research settings to rapidly evaluate indicators of diseases, such as cancer.
Traditionally, these instruments have not always taken advantage of the latest breakthroughs in lasers, optics and electronics and therefore tend to be large and expensive; also, they must be operated by trained specialists. Advances in techniques and instrument designs that are being developed at UB and RPCI will extend the range of applications for flow cytometers and improve their performance.
The institute's broad view of research and the flexibility and cooperative spirit of its scientists and staff have also attracted support from the private sector. AKT, the world's leading supplier of chemical vapor deposition systems to process and service the flat-panel display manufacturing industry, has donated $100,000 to the institute for research on flat-panel TVs and computer monitors. AKT president Kam Law, Ph.D. '81, was a student of Prasad.
"With the expansive resources and innovations of UB and AKT's direct involvement in the display market, fruitful results can be anticipated from this partnership," says Law.
The donation is earmarked to fund research for a new design concept that would provide higher resolution and a more efficient display mechanism for TVs, notebook computers, cameras and desktop monitors.
While the institute has several projects at the development stage, the recent major federal support it has obtained focuses on the science of materials, and advances that probably won't reach the consumer level for 15 years or more.
It's not just the next generation of IT materials that the institute is working on-it is also working on the generation after that one. For example, photonic materials and structures expected to result from the federal grant will be based on nanophotonic materials and structures that will dramatically reduce the size and increase the speed at which data are transmitted thousands of times faster than current desktop systems.
The new materials are expected to facilitate far better methods of encryption, terabit data storage and high band-width processing necessitated by huge increases being seen in traffic on the Internet.
"The generation after the next one will include devices where organic-based materials are utilized in place of inorganic [substances], such as the use of self-ordered assembly used in biological processes to produce nanoscale materials," says Earl J. Bergey, UB research associate professor of chemistry and a deputy director of the institute. This means that some of the same materials that nature uses to make up the intricate machinery inside living systems may one day be sitting inside your hard drive, too.
At the institute, Hiroaki Suga, UB assistant professor of chemistry, will team up with colleagues to see how the efficient organization of chemical systems, such as DNA, might be utilized in information processing.
A prime focus of this work is chemical self-assembly, nature's tendency to want to create regular patterns where it can. For example, if that power can be harnessed for the generation of new nanomaterials to form photonic crystals, believed to be important media for photonics to transform IT, it could lead to unprecedented cost savings.
"Bio-inspired" materials like these, the world's first photonic chips, better methods of imaging biological samples and more effective photodynamic therapies for treating cancer: Such ambitious goals are the result of a critical mass of researchers at the institute, all collectively pushing the frontiers of multiple disciplines in pursuit of progress in photonics.
As Cartwright observed in a recent conversation about his colleagues, "It's the right team."
Ellen Goldbaum is senior science editor, UB Office of News Services.