By McGill Reporter staff
McGill University physicist Jack Clayton Sankey, whose research focuses on the mechanical properties of light, has been awarded a coveted Sloan Research Fellowship for 2013.
Sankey joined the Department of Physics as an assistant professor in Jan. 2012. His laboratory, known as the McGill Optomechanics Lab, aims to develop new types of optically controlled micro-electromechanical systems (or MEMS) that are capable of rapidly sensing incredibly small forces, such as the weak magnetic “tugs” from individual atomic nuclei. Such devices could even be used to carefully sense the exotic states of matter found in a wide variety of quantum systems, and then “connect” these systems to one another via photons traveling along a microchip or a standard telecom fiber. This would impact the development of quantum computers — computers capable of performing calculations that are not possible with current technology — and long-distance communication using cryptographic security based on the laws of quantum mechanics.
“The goal of our research is ultimately to re-think the way we engineer micro-mechanical systems,” Sankey says. “Over the years, we have made incredible advances in MEMS technology by engineering their materials, shapes, and sizes. Now the modern field of optomechanics has provided us with a powerful new knob to turn.” Sankey said he believes optically controlled MEMS will certainly find a niche as next-generation sensors, and added that “they may one day even find themselves embedded in a quantum-based computer or communication system.” MEMS are currently used in a wide variety of technologies ranging from accelerometers in vehicles, to electronic filters in cell phones, to sensors capable of mapping the locations of nuclei in three-dimensional solids. More recently, MEMS have been proposed as a versatile platform for shuttling quantum information between dramatically different types of systems.
Typically, MEMS applications are limited by the mechanical dissipation associated with modern elastic materials. To overcome this limitation, the Optomechanics Lab, located in the Rutherford Physics Building, is creating new types of MEMS that are supported primarily by optical forces, thereby replacing traditional materials with laser light. Because the behavior of photons is fundamentally different from that of atoms in flexible solids, “this approach should allow us to circumvent the limitations imposed by the best existing mechanical materials,” Sankey explains.
Awarded annually by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation since 1955, the Sloan Research fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as rising stars, the next generation of scientific leaders. Sankey is one of 126 outstanding U.S. and Canadian researchers named as recipients for this year.
Administered and funded by the Sloan Foundation, the fellowships are awarded in eight scientific fields—chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics. Winners are selected through close cooperation with the scientific community. To qualify, candidates must first be nominated by their fellow scientists and are subsequently selected by an independent panel of senior scholars. Fellows receive $50,000 to be used to further their research.
Click here for a complete list of winners.