Duncan Spaulding '13 is working with his professor and students to design lasers for free-space optical communication systems.
To the non-scientific world, the word "laser" can evoke images of something as insignificant as a laser pointer or as extreme as a laser-beam weapon from a sci-fi movie. However, Duncan Spaulding '13 is conducting research this summer that helps design lasers for an entirely more practical and scientific purpose. Spaulding is working in the lab of Mohamed Diagne, the Oakes Ames Associate Professor of Physics, continuing a project he began with the professor as a sophomore. They are designing lasers for free-space optical communication systems, used for data and information transmission. Currently, their lab team has designed a laser so tiny that 5,000 of them could fit in a space as small as the tip of a ball-point pen. And yet they are at least 200 times more powerful than an astrological laser that would be used to point into the night sky. "Think of it as essentially the way that ships used to communicate with lamps using Morse code," Spaulding said. "But instead of a lamp you have a laser, instead of a person flipping the switch it is a computer, instead of a person's eyes picking up on the incoming light you have some kind of light-detector, and instead of a person's brain interpreting the signal there is another computer." Although the process of creating such a laser is time-consuming, tedious and very complex, Spaulding is excited about the opportunity to work on such an important project. Recently, Spaulding and his lab partner Neil Newman '12 took their work to MIT's Lincoln Lab, a government lab facility in Lexington, Mass. Here, the lasers they had designed together began to be constructed. "We got exposure to a lot of techniques and got to experience things that undergraduates wouldn't normally get to see," said Spaulding. "It was a phenomenal opportunity for us to watch our devices being manufactured, as it gave us a much deeper understanding of how they actually function and gave us more insight into the design process." This past spring, Spaulding worked closely with Newman and a third partner, Graham Allen '14, to discover the ideal electrical conditions for the lasers to achieve maximum power output. Spaulding describes the process as creating a "recipe" for which you have all of the necessary tools and ingredients, but still have to figure out how to make the first batch successfully. After this first difficult step, the recipe can be followed again and again. "The skills we have learned over the past few semesters have made it so that we now have phenomenal setups in place," Spaulding said. "We essentially just need to hook the devices up to our system and gather the data." Under the supervision of Diagne, Spaulding and Newman reported their findings in a paper that was submitted to Journal for Undergraduate Research in Physics. The paper is currently under review. Spaulding is grateful for the opportunity to work on a project that he feels is relevant to his aspirations after college, when he hopes to attend graduate school for optical engineering. "Because Professor Diagne has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, he can bring the perspective of someone with a very strong engineering background to the physics program at Conn," Spaulding said. "It's really nice to have the strong physics curriculum that the school provides, augmented by his knowledge of engineering. We've been bridging the gap between the two subjects and it's been absolutely fascinating." - By Bailey Bennett