Schmidt funding awarded to investigations into atomically thin sensors

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
May 5, 2023

An ECE-led project with the potential to open new avenues in science and engineering — miniaturizing imagers to monitor the environment and human health — has been selected for funding through Princeton’s Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund.

Led by Antoine Kahn, the Stephen C. Macaleer ’63 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science, and Saien Xie, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and the Princeton Materials Institute, this project is one of three Schmidt-funded projects this year, according to a recent announcement.

“These are early-stage projects with tremendous potential to enable scientific discoveries and technological innovations that can benefit society at large,” said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering. “These projects have transformative potential but are so groundbreaking that they carry some risk, and we are grateful to Eric and Wendy Schmidt for their generosity and their vision in recognizing the importance of funding this stage of research.”

The fund was created in 2009 through a gift from Eric and Wendy Schmidt. Eric Schmidt is the former Chief Executive Officer of Google and former Executive Chairman of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company. Wendy Schmidt is a businesswoman and philanthropist. Eric Schmidt earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Princeton in 1976 and served as a Princeton Trustee from 2004 to 2008.

Many areas of health and science involve evaluating the properties of a chemical or other object by measuring the range of wavelengths of light, or spectra, emitted by the substance. Spectrometers, devices that measure these emissions, are large and bulky because they first must run the light through a prism or filter that separates light into its different wavelength components prior to detection by silicon-based detectors, which alone cannot distinguish between light of different colors.

By harnessing new materials to build the detector, the Kahn-Xie project aims to build the world’s first atomically thin and lightweight imager capable of measuring the intensity of light at distinct wavelengths, for applications such as medical imaging, precision agriculture, environmental monitoring and self-driving vehicles. The small footprint and miniscule weight mean that the imager can be implanted in the body, used on wearable medical monitors, or mounted to a drone for aerial imaging.

The team, led by an expert in materials synthesis and a leader in optical, electronic and nanoscale spectroscopies, will create a new type of detector based on a class of two-dimensional materials known as transition-metal dichalcogenides. These materials can detect light of individual wavelengths, eliminating the need for prisms and filters and opening opportunities for creating novel imaging devices for a range of applications.