The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded a $1.3 million grant to UCF researchers Debashis Chanda and Michael N. Leuenberger to fund the development of a next-generation infrared detector that could be used in fields as varied as night vision, meteorology and space exploration.

“We are working on a novel infrared detection and imaging technology. The detection mechanism is very different than what is being used now,” said Chanda, an assistant professor with joint appointments to UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center and College of Optics & Photonics.

The work caught the attention of the federal DARPA, which made news recently with fanciful technology like a crewless Navy drone ship, workhorse robots to lug soldiers’ heavy gear, and the XS-1 space plane. DARPA is funding the UCF team’s research for the 3½ years.

Portable infrared cameras that can see invisible wavelengths of light have long been used by law enforcement, soldiers, firefighters and others to see in the dark or locate people by the body heat they emit. But the blurry images those devices produce are sometimes nothing more than indistinct colored blobs.

More powerful infrared detectors that produce more detailed images – ones typically used by NASA and defense agencies – are large, expensive and can only function at ultra-low temperatures.

“The biggest problem is that most infrared detectors need cryogenic cooling, and in most cases you can’t carry a big cooling tank with you,” Chanda said. “That is a big barrier.”

Leuenberger, an associate professor of theoretical condensed matter physics at the NanoScience Technology Center with joint appointments at UCF’s Department of Physics and College of Optics & Photonics, is working with Chanda on an entirely new type of detector. It relies on graphene, a two-dimensional material that is only one atomic layer thick.

Chanda and Leuenberger envision an infrared detector that is small, portable, doesn’t need to be cooled and produces high-resolution images. Unlike current technologies, which can detect only one band of light, the next-gen detector would be tunable and able to see a range of bands.

“We came up with the idea that one can make graphene to strongly absorb light in the infrared domain and we showed that we can also tune the response electronically,” Chanda said. “If you can take an infrared image in different spectral bands, you can extract much more information.”

The team intends to collaborate with defense majors such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and St. Johns Optical Systems for integration and packaging.

Note: The grant requires this sentence appear on press releases: This information does not necessarily reflect the position or the policy of the Government, and no official endorsement should be inferred.