UD professor Tingyi Gu wins NASA award to develop hybrid materials for communications devices

An electrical engineering professor at the University of Delaware makes material fit for an interplanetary mission — take NASA’s word for it.

Tingyi Gu, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has received an Early Career Faculty (ECF) Award from NASA for her research using integrated photonic devices for low power space photonic communication and sensors for space weather observations. Recipients of this award typically receive an allocation of about $200,000 per year for three years.

Gu is developing lightweight silicon photonic chips that can withstand harsh atmospheric conditions in space, monitor gamma ray and UV radiation, and send communication signals between space and the ground.

In collaboration with Dr. Po Dong’s team at Bell Labs, hundreds of these nanoscale photonic chips will be designed and tested in her lab, and manufactured on a wafer scale at American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics to maximize the device uniformity and repeatability.

This wafer scale substrate is costly and must be done in an outside foundry. “This grant will give us an opportunity to fabricate our device,” she said.

Silicon photonics is still a relatively new field—its infancy dating back to just the 1980s. There’s plenty of room for innovation, especially when it comes to the devices Gu is working on.

“We have to sort of invent these nanoscale radiation-hardened building blocks from scratch, by incorporating new materials onto the silicon photonic platform” she said.

Testing devices in space

Gu isn’t just working with one NASA award. She is also collaborating with Prof. Bennett A. Maruca from the Physics and Astronomy department, under guidance of William H. Matthaeus, director of the Delaware Space Grant Consortium, on research being funded through NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) International Space Station (ISS) Flight Opportunity Cooperative.

The proposal, “Evaluation of graphene-silicon photonic integrated circuits for high-speed, light weight and radiation hard optical communication in space,” will be funded next year through a $90,073 grant.

This will allow Gu to send her photonic devices to space in a launch within five years.

“In less than one year at UD, Tingyi has already established a productive and highly promising lab, developing materials that have earned a coveted spot on the International Space Station,” said Babatunde Ogunnaike, dean of the College of Engineering. “We are delighted that she has been recognized with NASA funding and look forward to her continued achievements.”

Gu joins UD professors in chemical and biomolecular engineering, physics and astronomy, biological sciences, and geography who have funding from NASA.

“This is yet another example of excellence in space-related research at UD,” says Ogunnaike.

Kenneth Barner, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said: “Prof. Gu is a true innovator in nanofabrication, photonics, and devices. Her novel approaches will directly advance ground-to-space and space-to-ground sensing and communications. Prof. Gu, her students, and collaborators are applying their expertise to addressing one of society’s most important challenges — exploring what lies beyond earth’s boundaries.”

Gu said she feels lucky to have support from fellow faculty members, such as Engineering Alumni Professor Dennis Prather in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Robert L. Pigford Chair of Chemical Engineering Norman Wagner.

Gu joined the UD faculty in fall 2016 after completing a post-doc in Prof. Craig Arnold’s group at Princeton University’s Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials and a post-doc in Dr. Raymond Beausoleil’s group HP labs, Palo Alto. She earned her doctoral degree in electrical engineering at Columbia University.