Dr. Mark Brongersma (front row, third from right) and his team at Stanford University.

Dr. Mark Brongersma and his team at Stanford University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering get excited about using tiny structures to manipulate light.

This dynamic is all around us. It’s light interacting with molecules in the air to make the sky look blue and water droplets to make clouds look white.

But when you think tiny, Dr. Brongersma is working with particles 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. His research is helping make chips run faster, clothes cool bodies efficiently, and hydrogen fuel emerge from water.

In this interview, we explore how infinitely small-scale research has massive real-world impact. Dr. Brongersma reflects on his work to date, the benefit of working with industry, and how to attract brilliant minds to compelling research.

Silicon crystals

Mark Brongersma comes from a family of scientists and professors. Eager to follow in their footsteps, at the age of 6 he projected how long it would take him to become a professor and was upset when he realized it would take him 30 years.

Nineteen years later, he was earning a PhD at the AMOLF research Laboratory in Amsterdam and working with Albert Polman, a pioneer in the field of nanophotonics.

At the time there was substantial interest to see if electronic chips could be made faster by using light particles to transfer data, in addition to electrical currents.

Dr. Brongersma explained the research: “To see whether it would be possible to use light, we needed to develop some of the smallest light sources and ways to transport light on the chip.”

Researchers discovered that silicon, the main material computer chips are made of, can emit light when chopped into little silicon bits, or nanocrystals. Brongersma worked on demonstrating how the size and shape of the silicon crystals could be used to control the effectiveness and color of the light emission.

Later, he also found that light can be guided along metallic particle arrays and wires on the chip. Following these early findings, during his postdoc at the California Institute of Technology, which to this day has an ongoing collaboration with AMOLF, he studied how to make the tiniest wires that could transport light on a chip.

His amazing research solved an important piece of the puzzle of how to make super-fast energy-saving computer chips.

Soon after conducting that research, Dr. Brongersma became a professor at Stanford University, and achieved his childhood goal in less than 30 years.

Keeping science real

Dr. Brongersma loves technology and advocates strongly for the importance of applied research: “Often the best fundamental questions come from technological questions where you suddenly have to think in a completely different way.”

Through his work at Stanford, he has successfully translated his science into applied technologies by co-founding a startup, Rolith. The company, which was later acquired  by Metamaterials Technologies Inc., applies nanostructures to large areas, for example, in the windows of the flight deck to protect pilots from laser attacks.

This solved an important problem, as there are roughly 20 laser beam attacks in the US every night. The attackers, mainly children near airports, point lasers at pilots when planes are taking off or landing, and the nano-coated glass blocks the light of the laser pointer, but still allows the pilot to clearly see the outside world.

Reflecting his commitment to applied research, about 30 percent to 40 percent of his work at Stanford is funded by industry, and this has enabled ongoing innovation in his work.

“Government research funding has stayed more or less steady, and at the same time, companies have realized how we can use this knowledge of how to make and use nanostructures and optics to make better components,” he said. “That together has moved our research, a little bit more from fundamental research to more applied research.”

In an industry collaboration with Samsung, which has entered the race for self-driving cars, Dr. Brongersma works on LIDAR scanning laser beams.

With company ENEL Green Power, he’s implementing state-of-the-art solar cells that have nanostructures on top to increase their efficiency. The solar cells that he is working on in his lab are so thin, “about a hundredth the thickness of a human hair,” that they become flexible. This result in easy applications, for example, to the wings of an airplane or other automotive vehicles.

Finally, with augmented reality (AR) startup Magic Leap, he’s innovating  to improve AR glasses, which today are still bulky. By applying an invisible coating of nanostructures on the glasses that capture and redirect light, they can look like regular eyeglasses and become more user friendly, allowing the wearer to move and see virtual images blended in their true surroundings, without feeling nauseous.

These extensive experiences with applied technologies have shown Dr. Brongersma that collaboration with industry should be done thoughtfully.

For example, Stanford facilitates collaboration with industry through an affiliate program. For an annual fee of $150,000, a company can have active engagement with research programs and meet faculty and the brightest students.

This creates a win-win dynamic as money flows into research and infrastructure at the university, while students hear directly from industry leaders about the problems they are trying to solve and where they need support and new collaborations.

The Netherlands is one of the key players in the field of photonics and it has played a leading role in optics since the discoveries of Willebrord Snellius and Christiaan Huygens 400 years ago.

“The Netherlands is especially good at fundamental research,” Dr. Brongersma said, and he believes some university groups may consider working more closely with industry. “Get more companies involved to push to keep science real, because some people do brilliant things that are completely useless. So why not try to solve really hard problems that industry has?”

He stressed that universities should do work that companies think is too far out: “You need to have that 10- to 20-year horizon for research.”

Attracting the best of the best

Dr. Brongsmera is also committed to supporting and cultivating talented young researchers. Seven out of his eight last graduate students all went to Apple.

With tech giants just around Stanford’s corner, it can be difficult for universities to compete for talent. “Graduate students starting at Apple earn basically my salary,” he said, acknowledging that “with a faculty salary, it is extremely challenging to live in Silicon Valley.”

Nobody knows what Apple is working on, but rumor has it that Apple is also working on AR glasses. “There’s a competition, and Apple should be investing in the research and my group, but their way is to just buy up the talent.”

Yet, he is also excited for his students because they land jobs in a matter of weeks. “Part of that excitement is that the things that we are working on are really making an impact now,” he said.

Government could definitely play a role in attracting the best scientists, Dr. Brongersma thinks. When he was in high school, the US was investing heavily in science, making competitive offers to attract the best scientists from all over the world.

“That is, I think, the reason behind the strength of the US economy and it’s going to be the detriment of the US economy to stop bringing the best people here.”

He points out that China today is offering faculty incredible startup packages and resources, making it attractive for the best Chinese students to return to China.

“The costs of brilliant people leaving are hard to put or calculate on paper.” He stressed that governments should make it attractive to bring in more talent: “This is going to cost money, but the long-term benefit of bringing the best people in your country is worth any input,” and points to the incredible economic impact of Stanford in the Bay Area.

Companies that were formed by Stanford entrepreneurs generate trillions of dollars in revenue annually and have created millions of jobs since the 1930s. A study showed that if the companies that were founded by Stanford alumni formed an independent nation, it would be the 10th largest economy in the world.

How to make it attractive to bring in brilliant scientists? In addition to money it includes resources and a good quality of life: “That goes from good infrastructure, to transportation to great restaurants to alI the things that if you ask a young person, what do you value, about living in a certain city or place? If you can make deals, great things happen.”

Could the Netherlands make it attractive for him to return? One of the things that makes Stanford unique is the large size and international nature of its programs. He loves working with so many different people that bring diverse ideas.

“That would be harder to give up,” he said. With a competitive salary it could be interesting to return. Maybe in the role of a dean he could help universities or other organizations move into new directions. “I have many romantic thoughts of going back to Amsterdam and obviously great, amazing science is done in the Netherlands. So, I would not exclude the idea.”

Read about other Dutch researchers in the United States.