New center at RIT finds novel ways to use photo sensors

By NATE DOUGHERTY - 3/4/2011

  For anyone who uses a cell phone camera, a type of digital feedback that causes graininess is inevitable. But researchers at a newly formed center at Rochester Institute of Technology are working on eliminating it, opening a realm of possibilities for astronomy, biomedicine and even national security.

  The Center for Detectors in RIT's College of Science works on projects that advance the science and technology of photon sensors through interdisciplinary research. Because of the nature of the projects, there is a good chance it will bring significant funding to RIT, Director Don Figer said.

  Detectors, like those in cell phone cameras, are used for a range of activities such as detecting cancers or tracing airborne chemical agents in case of a terrorist attack.

  "Depending on the application, you might be willing to try to make a better detector, and that's what we will do," Figer said. "For instance, if you're building a $5 billion space telescope, you might be willing to make a better detector than the $1 one in your phone.

  "Those that go into space tend to cost $1 million a chip, and each one is like God's little creation, highly custom with exquisite performance."

  The center occupies 5,000 square feet on campus and has 10 to 15 workers-including students-depending on the project, Figer said. He envisions the center growing to 50 people.

  The work being done there has been an interdisciplinary effort, Figer said, and has included faculty and students from other universities and from different schools at RIT.

  The E. Philip Saunders College of Business at RIT worked on a benchmarking study to examine how other centers operate and develop programs for students, and the RIT School of Design helped design the lab space and logo.

  "We're kind of like a blank slate. We have beautiful space here in a very new building, but we don't have the kind of signage and posters and video displays," Figer said. "The School of Design knows how to take the mission of our organization and flow it down into different elements, a completely different realm of study I know nothing about."

  The center formed from the Rochester Imaging Detector Laboratory, itself founded in 2006 as part of a faculty development grant from the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation.

  The laboratory has helped RIT become involved in some of the highest-profile projects in the field. Several projects were listed in the Astronomy Decadal Study, a report from the National Research Council that identifies the highest-priority research activities for astronomy and astrophysics in the next decade.

  The center is expected to focus on discoveries that can fit with other optical systems, such as biophotonic imaging, which marries detectors with electronics and devices. This is used as a complement to X-ray technology, using optical light to look inside the human body.

  Figer said the center could develop a biophotonics test bed with regional research hospitals, opening the possibility for commercial applications through local medical imaging companies.

  "We want to have research in RIT's new Institute of Health Sciences and Technology that would leverage and take advantage of these cutting-edge detectors," Figer said. "In that case, the test bed would become a unique research tool for developing new medical instrumentation, a particularly fertile area for RIT's focus on innovative technology."

  If successful, this would be the only biophotonic program in the world with that level of detectors, Figer said.

  "Our detectors will represent a quantum leap in sensitivity and the ability to obtain data simultaneously from many more channels," he said. "Instead of having 16 pixels, for instance, we would have tens of thousands, or even millions, of pixels. You can imagine what kind of difference that would make."

Funding opportunities
  Under Figer, the laboratory had a track record of winning external research funding, bringing $7.5 million in total.

  The funding came primarily from companies or government entities looking for the laboratory to do specific research projects, such as a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory to develop the zero read noise detector. That is funded through a $3 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, set up by the co-founder of Intel Corp.

  "The zero read noise detector is something that's never been done before," Figer said. "This detector would have a broad range of applications, particularly in cameras and spectrographs for a telescope 30 meters in diameter, larger than anything we have now. Using one of these detectors, the collective reading power of the telescope would be increased by four, which is better and cheaper than just building a bigger telescope."

  Since its opening, the laboratory had been one of the best performers at the university in garnering money for sponsored research. Nearly half of its funding came from NASA, Figer said, including money for a project to help with autonomous landings on asteroids for which RIT ranked No. 1 out of 107 submissions, beating out MIT, Princeton University, Harvard University and NASA's own research centers.

  The center has a bright outlook for continued funding, said David Bond, RIT's director for sponsored research services.

  "I think they're well-positioned to continue growing because the nature of detectors falls squarely in the mission space of multiple federal agencies and some foundations," Bond said. "These are applications people haven't even thought of yet, and there really could be a lot of interesting science and basic research enabled by his work."

  Figer said he expects the center to gain funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, among other agencies. He is submitting a proposal for $50 million from NSF that would fund the center for 10 years.

  Though that kind of grant is rare, Figer said he thinks the work being done at the center would justify it.

  "The NSF has a program where they fund the kind of centers doing this work, but they can't fund too many," he said. "Since 1980 they've funded maybe 25. We want to use that to invent new kinds of detectors and also employ them in Upstate New York with big and small companies."

  The NSF funding would allow the center to occupy its own building, Figer said, either in newly built space or in existing space at the university.

  As the center completes projects, especially the zero read noise detector, it also will bring national attention to RIT, Bond said.

  "That's a significant advance that would do a lot for the reputation of RIT," Bond said. "A cutting-edge discovery like that would make a strong statement about the research being done at RIT."

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