3/06/2017 Peter Durantine

Converting Light with Lasers to Better See a Microscopic World

In a second-floor laboratory in the Hackman Physical Sciences Building on Franklin & Marshall College’s campus, a professor watches as a threadlike green laser light bounces around a large, wide plastic box.

“I study a process called second harmonic generation,” said Assistant Professor of Physics Amy Lytle. “It’s the process of converting light from one color to another.”

For her research, Lytle recently received a $407,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award, presented to faculty in early career development, that will support seven undergraduate summer scholars over the five-year course of the award.

One of NSF’s most prestigious, the award also supports conferences where student researchers make presentations. Three of her students have already contributed as co-authors on papers about this research project, which promises to provide applications for other types of research.

  • Lytle's research involves the study of a process called "second harmonic generation," converting light from one color to another. Lytle's research involves the study of a process called "second harmonic generation," converting light from one color to another. Image Credit: Deb Grove

The award also provides funding for the purchase of two pieces of research equipment needed for her work, which involves observing light’s interaction as the laser beams through a field of instrument detectors and crystalline materials.

Lytle is trying to engineer the field to make the interaction more efficient.

“Second harmonic generation is taking light of one frequency and converting it to double that frequency, so I’m taking light from the very red end of the visible spectrum and shifting it to the very blue or purple end of the visible spectrum,” she said.

When the laser’s intense light interacts with certain crystalline material, the molecules of the crystals emit light of different color, which Lytle said has many scientific applications such as the study of chemical, molecular and atomic processes. 

“This is really good for applications like developing new laser sources at different colors, but people also use it for imaging,” she said. “Depending on the molecular structure of a substance, the brightness of the re-emitted new color is different, so you can distinguish between different kinds of structures in your imaging.”

A project collaborator is Lytle’s husband, F&M Assistant Professor of Physics Etienne Gagnon, who conducts some of the laser simulations.

“We’re trying to understand the fundamental physics of this process, which we hope can be applied to a range of other, similar processes,” Lytle said.

NSF CAREER Awards also support faculty’s teaching efforts, and so some of the funding will help Lytle develop her courses in the Connections curriculum and the department’s sophomore-level Optics course.

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