California State University, Northridge electrical and computer engineering professor Somnath Chattopadhyay recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to support cutting-edge microelectronics research that could save lives by eliminating potential interference from radio waves in military aircraft.
The $463,879 grant from the United States Department of the Army, U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is funding a three- research project (2012–2015) entitled “SiC/GaN Based Optically Triggered MESFET for High Power efficiency and High Radiation Resistance Solid State Switch Application for Actuator System.”
“The main goal of our research is to develop the UV optically-triggered MESFET for a high-power solid state switch for high radiation resistance, as well as a high-efficiency and precise controller for actuator circuits for military and civil aviation,” explained Chattopadhyay. “We’re focused on developing optoelectronic devices that can integrate into these actuator systems and improve their function, efficiency and survivability.”
In addition to military applications, this innovative semiconductor technology has a wide range of critical applications in military and commercial avionics and space exploration.
The idea is less complicated than it sounds. These types of switch-actuator devices are already part of everyday life, wherever external radio-frequency signals interact with power electronics. It’s the same basic technology used in cars for keyless entry and on airplanes to activate the landing gear and other complicated mechanical and communications functions.
“The aircraft is a big antenna catching signals,” said Chattopadhyay, “and radio frequency (RF) signals can sometimes conflict with the actuator’s power electronics circuit, with potentially catastrophic implications. That is the reason why we are not allowed to turn on our cell phone during a flight—it’s a high-frequency device that can create dangerous interference. The main goal of our research is to build devices that enhance the precision control and stabilization of the actuator function using optoelectronic devices.”
Chattopadhyay’s research feeds into the development of next-generation photonics power electronics systems based on optically-triggered devices (OTDs), which provide many advantages over conventional electrically-triggered devices (ETDs). A key advantage of OTDs is lighter weight. Research suggests that OTDs could potentially help reduce the weight of aircraft by up to 30%, a crucial factor for manufacturers such as Boeing and that makes a reduction of gasoline consumption.
The funding follows an earlier DoD grant of $499,728 (2005–2008) that supported Chattopadhyay’s successful development of an improved semiconductor device. That research aimed at enhancing and protecting such communications by transferring external radio-frequency signals to an optically-controlled Metal Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor, or MESFET. On the battlefield, radio-frequency (RF) communications between troops and commanders can mean the difference between life and death.
“But conventional RF communications are in a frequency range that can be captured by the enemy,” said Somnath Chattopadhyay, a professor in the California State University, Northridge Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Chattopadhyay is coordinator of CSUN’s Microelectronics Laboratory. The “clean lab” is essential to Chattopadhyay’s research. A previous grant from the Department of Defense helped him to prepare the lab—decontaminating the floors and walls and purchasing essential equipment including a diffusion furnace, mask aligner and sputtering units—where he successfully developed the lab’s first optically controlled MESFET device.
The three-year DoD-funded research project (2012–2015) is entitled “SiC/GaN Based Optically Triggered MESFET for High Power efficiency and High Radiation Resistance Solid State Switch Application for Actuator System.”
“Securing grants is always a challenge but the great reputation of our College of Engineering and Computer Science gives us a helpful advantage,” said Chattopadhyay, who helped opened the gateway to DoD funding through the Minority Serving Institution (MSI) research grant program.
An experienced researcher, Chattopadhyay is an inveterate problem solver. There are not only scientific and technical problems to be solved in the research, but additional challenges in the work environment, from the ongoing state budget crisis to a space crunch in a rapidly growing department.
Nevertheless Chattopadhyay remains optimistic.
“My dream is to make CSUN a center for advanced study in fabricating microelectronics and nanoelectronics devices,” he said. As a center of innovation, the lab could also become a source of potential revenue, he added, as manufacturers serving the aerospace industry turn to high-quality labs for testing of sample devices.
Chattopadhyay recently received another grant of $6,000 for an undergraduate apprenticeship program. Meanwhile, a new 600-level graduate course he developed in semiconductor device fabrication has been approved for the 2012–2013 academic year by College of Engineering and Computer Science.
“This course will give students hands-on experience while advancing our research and development of more high-frequency semiconductor devices for military applications, space exploration, and smartphones,” he said.
Cal State Northridge’s College of Engineering and Computer Science is nationally recognized. It’s growing programs offer state-of-the-art laboratories that enhance experiential learning. CSUN engineering students have taken top honors at regional and national competitions, and in 2011, the college was selected by the U.S. Department of Education to receive a five-year, $5.5 million award under the Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) STEM Initiative program to recruit and graduate underrepresented minorities in engineering and computer science.