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Researcher honored for developing cutting-edge technologies to speed up data processing, storage

Yongmin Liu, assistant professor, receives prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

Northeastern assistant professor Yongmin Liu has received a $500,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award, the agency’s most distinguished award in support of junior faculty who excel as both researchers and teachers and exhibit the potential to lead advances in their chosen academic disciplines.

Liu received the award for his research developing new ways to control the magnetic properties of recording media such as hard disk drives in computers to dramatically increase the speed at which data can be stored. Instead of using the traditional magnetic head to activate the magnetic recording materials, Liu will use light—optical laser pulses—combined with metallic nanostructures to generate the necessary magnetic field to store the data.

“Using light we can increase the recording rate by two to three orders of magnitude, from gigahertz to terahertz,” said Liu, who has joint appointments in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and the  Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “The approach essentially transforms data storage for the big data era. The CAREER award provides a unique opportunity for me to further that goal by developing technologies that can lead to more efficient computation, information processing, and digital communications.”

Enterprises that will benefit from this ultrafast nanoscale optical-magnetism approach include web search engines, online retailers, and social media platforms—that is, any application calling for data storage with continually increasing capacity and speed.

Shaping future role models

The educational component of the project includes teaching students from the middle grades through the graduate level about the latest developments in disciplines ranging from materials science and optics to nanotechnology. Northeastern students will have the opportunity to apply what they learn to real-world problems via industry collaborators participating in the university’s global co-op program. “I hope to help shape future role models entering the U.S. workforce,” said Liu.

Liu came to Northeastern in 2012 with a background in optics, the branch of physics that concentrates on the genesis and properties of light, and photonics, which explores the propagation of photons, the fundamental particles of light, in applications such as solar energy harvesting, biomedical sensing, optical communications, and data storage. The CAREER project represents a broadening of his own frame of reference as well.

“The CAREER-funded work is an exciting new area for me,” he said. “It forms a unique platform for me to pursue my academic goals to advance optics and photonics research based on rationally engineered nanomaterials, to bridge the knowledge gaps between multiple disciplines, and to transform the new knowledge into ground-breaking technologies.”

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