UI scientists' work honored as a top story

UI scientists' work honored as a top story

Discover magazine thought a full-blown article on their laser-emitting transistor was too complicated for its lay audience earlier this year, but Milton Feng, Nick Holonyak and the device have ended up in the magazine anyway.

The University of Illinois-developed transistor that puts out both electric current and light, which might one day be a key device in a sea change in communications and computing, is being recognized by Discover as one of the 100 Top Science Stories of 2005.

The January special issue, out now, also recognizes the research of UI geophysicist Xiaodong Song. From studying seismic waves, Song and colleagues reported this year that the Earth's moon-sized solid iron core spins faster than the rest of the planet.

The finding may help explain what drives Earth's magnetic field, which shields us from dangerous bombardment by charged particles from the sun.

Holonyak, a UI electrical and computer engineering and physics professor, and Feng, an electrical and computer engineering professor, announced in September that they had run their laser-emitting transistor at room temperature, a milestone on the path to making it a practical device. They first announced last year that they had developed transistors capable of emitting scattered light and then coherent, infrared laser light.

Those developments have drawn plenty of attention in professional and scientific journals like Applied Physics Letters and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Spectrum.

But Holonyak said an article in a popular science publication like Discover – with hundreds of thousands of readers instead of a few thousand – is likely to raise the level of attention the technology receives.

He said the article also serves the purpose of letting the people who pay for publicly funded universities like the UI know they're getting something for their money.

"The public has a right to try to know what's happening and what they're buying," said Holonyak, inventor of the first practical light-emitting diode, a device that now shines from the displays of electronic equipment all around us and should eventually replace the light bulb.

Ordinary transistors, the central active component in almost all modern electronics, are "two-port" devices. A charge goes in and an electrical signal goes out.

The laser-emitting transistor has three ports. It emits both the electrical signal and laser light. The latter could be regulated and guided over fiber-optic lines in light-speed communications or, perhaps, used in signaling between components on a computer chip exponentially faster than possible with conventional electronics.

The UI is applying for a number of patents on the device, and even Feng has started believing it's going somewhere.

"If you'd asked me two years ago, I would have said I've got my doubts," Feng said. "But now ..."

The two scientists emphasized that they, their students and postdoctoral researchers Gabriel Walter and Richard Chan still have a lot to learn about the laser-emitting transistor.

But they're poised within the next year to show that it can produce visible light, another milestone in accelerating its development and making it practical, and that it can be used for signal processing.

Holonyak said the device has the advantage of being rooted in time-tested transistor technology dating back to the invention of the transistor by his mentor John Bardeen, the UI's late two-time Nobel Prize winner. That should help ease the path to its adoption.

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