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Staying on the beam with David Hwang

In case you’re not an expert in microscale heat transfer … if the finer points of via-hole fabrication and selective crystallization escape you … on the off chance you were absent the day they taught laser-guided nanomaterials synthesis … please don’t panic. Stony Brook University would like you to meet David Hwang.

Now an associate professor in SBU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, the PhD (University of California-Berkeley, mechanical engineering) is a product of some of the finest institutions in California and South Korea, where the Hawaiian-born Dr. Hwang spent much of his youth.

Between the Korean Peninsula and the West Coast, the scientist has amassed an amazing body of work, including studies at Seoul National University and research stints at the Samsung Advanced Technical Institute of Technology in South Korea, UC-Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

Since 2000, his work has involved lasers – micro- and nanoscale laser processing, time-resolved diagnostics by ultrafast lasers, light-matter interaction diagnostics, laser-assisted solar manufacturing and other uses for highly amplified, tightly focused electromagnetic radiation.

But not until he arrived in Stony Brook was Dr. Hwang able to really shine.

All of his previous stops, he notes, “were as a student or assistant researcher.” On Long Island, “this is my research.”

“Only after I came to Stony Brook could I explore my own experiments and explore my own focused research fields,” Dr. Hwang adds.

That academic freedom has steered him mainly toward the development of new efficiencies in energy production, storage and transmission, including laser-assisted manufacturing and diagnostics technologies for next-generation photovoltaic (PV) solar systems.

There’s also been work on thermoelectric generators (TEG) for waste-heat recovery; the super-insulating of composite materials for construction-related energy savings; a few hybrid oil-water separation architectures, the separation of the occasional earth elements … a wide breadth of experiences leveraging Dr. Hwang’s expertise in micro- and nanoscale heat transfer.

With lasers, the researcher is essentially exploring “a new type of heat source.”

“Laser light can be confined in a specific location for a specific time,” Dr. Hwang says. “Essentially, a well-controlled and selective heating source.”

The work is made possible not only by the exceptional resources inside SBU’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (AERTC) and other university facilities, but through a partnership with nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL). Dr. Hwang sees parallels between the strong Stony Brook/BNL relationship and the UC-Berkeley/Berkeley National Laboratory relationship – an apples-to-oranges comparison, the scientist admits, but the two arrangements are “equally good” in that “both schools have maintained their relationships with their national laboratories.”

The SBU-BNL connection might actually be a little stronger. An advanced assortment of BNL equipment – a full range of clean-room facilities with state-of-the-art material-characterization tools, a cutting-edge synchrotron and more – is available to Dr. Hwang free of charge, thanks to BNL’s “very well-developed user-proposal system.”

At the national lab in Berkeley, there’s a similar user-proposal system – but it’s pay-to-play, the scientist notes, when it comes to the clean-room facilities and other cutting-edge resources.

“My user proposals for full range of processing and diagnostics facilities are usually accepted at BNL,” Dr. Hwang . “So financially, it’s much more favorable. With equal amounts of research funds, I can produce much more here than I could at Berkeley.”

For the laser-focused researcher, that beautifully complements the myriad advantages of working at the AERTC, including safe, dedicated space for multiple laser sources and an advanced laser-scanning system (with essential characterization instruments) brought in specifically for Dr. Hwang’s research.

There’s also the AERTC’s bi-annual Advanced Energy Conference – providing international networking opportunities with like-minded scientists – and an Advanced Energy Center building covered with solar cells, both critical advantages for Dr. Hwang’s laser-guided environmental rescue mission.   

“My research feeds into the mission of the Advanced Energy Center,” he says. “It’s a win-win situation. The space is good and the AERTC’s leadership/partners give me a broad range of networking contacts.”

Dr. Hwang – whose work has been supported financially by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, Korean national laboratories and government agencies (including the Korea Institute of Energy Technology Evaluation and Planning) and other industrial/international sources – believes he’s within five years of carving out a leading role in the laser-manufacturing of energy devices.

Among his goals: semi-transparent windows that double as solar panels (what he calls “building integrated PV cells”) and other energy efficiencies realized through the enormous (and really tiny) advantage of laser science.

“The goal is to realize more adaptation of renewable-energy sources in the form of PV and TEG in multiple platforms, with lower dollar-per-watt costs,” Dr. Hwang says. “Ultimately, this is all about energy efficiency.”