Elevation Recognizes Life’s Work in Laser-Material Interactions

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has elected Mool C. Gupta as a fellow for his contributions to laser-material interactions, using lasers to “microscale pattern” solar panels and wind turbines that exhibit favorable material properties. Each year, following a rigorous evaluation procedure, the IEEE Fellow Committee recommends a select group of recipients for this elevation in rank. Fewer than 0.1% of voting members are selected annually for this honor.

Gupta has engaged in this research for more than 35 years, the last 16 spent at the University of Virginia where he serves as founding director of the National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research Center for Lasers and Plasmas. Gupta is the UVA Langley Distinguished Professor at the National Institute of Aerospace and a faculty member of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He is also a fellow of the Optical Society.

Two trends continue to motivate Gupta’s work: miniaturization in the computer, medical device and electronics industries; and the mainstreaming of renewable energy, specifically wind and solar power.

Miniaturization depends on precise fabrication and measurement, processes frustrated by standard probes that inadvertently make contact with a material surface. Lasers offer a non-contact way to transmit and direct energy so engineers can accurately fabricate photonic devices and improve their performance.

“Laser processing is very likely to play a greater role in renewable energy applications in the near future,” Gupta said. He credits advances made in laser-processing systems’ power, versatility and cost-effectiveness. Students working in his lab aim to exceed the 20% efficiency of rooftop solar cells, better using the portion of the sun’s energy that can be converted into electricity. For example, they are designing and fabricating the “mask” for the solar device, a metal comb with a specified aperture or gap between the fingers to collect sun rays and generate electrical current.

In addition to solar technologies, students are working with the Center for Innovative Technology, based in Herndon, Virginia, and Dominion Virginia Power, a utility company based in Richmond, to test coatings that keep wind turbine blades free from ice. Gupta’s students use a laser to create microtexture prior to the application of a protective coating that makes the blade “superhydrophobic,” causing water droplets to bead and roll off the surface.

Researchers in Gupta’s lab conduct experiments and fabrications with lasers of different wavelengths, namely visible light, infrared and ultra-violet and pulse widths in picoseconds to continuous wave. Regarding size and power, the equipment ranges from a diode laser that is about the size of two matchboxes, to a 4,000-watt laser that can drill holes in steel and melt powder for film coatings and deposits. 

“Professor Gupta continuously excites young minds to dream about innovations in space technology," said Nikos Sidiropoulos, professor and chair of UVA’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and also an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers fellow. Gupta has led and continues to lead teams of undergraduate and graduate students who have won national engineering competitions that address NASA needs and requirements.

Gupta attracted and advises a team of undergraduate students whom NASA has selected to compete in its 2020 Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge. The team formed in fall 2019 through the accelerated research experiences for first-year engineers program led by electrical and computer engineering faculty. Using a simulation of the planet's rocky terrain, the team will build a laser-based system to extract water from ice several feet under the surface.