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  5. Focus on new faculty: Zongfu Yu, harnessing light at a small scale

Focus on new faculty: Zongfu Yu, harnessing light at a small scale

Zongfu Yu.

Advances in nanotechnology have created a host of powerful uses for optics, ranging from communication to food safety to healthcare. It’s a world of opportunity that Zongfu Yu began to grasp as he transitioned from his undergraduate education in physics at the University of Science and Technology of China into his grad work at Stanford University.

“I met people who were working on the cutting edge in a lot of different directions, and that broadened my view considerably,” Yu says. “I was able to make a lot of connections among different applications.”

While earning an MS in management science and engineering and a PhD in applied physics, Yu began to focus on controlling the behavior of light on a small scale. He worked in a Stanford research group that learned how to control photons to ensure greater integrity in fiber-optic communication, and explored the potential of ultra-thin solar cells. 

As a new assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, Yu will harness UW-Madison’s growing capacity in materials science, nanofabrication, and energy research. He is currently focusing on improving solar-cell technology and developing an advanced spectrometer.

Yu’s particular experience with solar cells will make his work a complement to UW-Madison researchers investigating new materials for solar cells. While at Stanford, Yu discovered that light behaves much differently within ultra-thin materials. His research group found that making the material “rougher” causes the light to bounce around for a longer time within it. 

“Instead of developing specific materials, my research group is trying to design structures that control the light and make the best use of the material,” Yu says.   

Yu and his grad students at UW-Madison also are working to develop advanced on-chip spectrometers. The devices currently have a broad range of applications in life sciences and healthcare, as they can be used to detect particular molecules and proteins, but they’re also bulky and expensive.

“We’re trying to significantly reduce the size of the spectrometers and improve their resolution, so that they are more cheaply available to a wide range of applications,” Yu says. 

Yu finds UW-Madison to be a promising place to combine his physics background with his experience in many application areas.

“It is exciting to see that nanophotonics has developed to a point where we can translate the science into technology that impacts many aspects in daily life, in communication, energy, and healthcare” he says. “This is enabled by the progress of nanotechnology, which allows us to fabricate nanostructures reliably and cheaply now, and that gives us a unique opportunity.”

Scott Gordon