By ROBERT WELLS

One of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations – the W. M. Keck Foundation – has awarded the University of Central Florida a $1 million Science and Engineering Research grant.

The money is for a project led by University of Central Florida College of Optics and Photonics Professors Ayman Abouraddy and Demetrios Christodoulides. The project is titled Space-time optics for novel light-matter interactions.

This project builds on their previous work developing so-called ‘space-time wave packets.’

These are pulsed laser beams with unique properties that stem from their structure in space and time. The researchers will exploit these new laser pulses to accelerate tiny particles, known as dielectric particles, that have not been accelerated before.

Having this control over small dielectric particles could open up new avenues for medicine and for materials and space sciences, the researchers say.

These potential applications include using high-speed micro-particle collisions for medical therapy, better understanding how micro-sized space debris adversely affects space vehicles, and informing the use of solar sail propulsion for small-scale space probes, the researchers say.

Typically, electric and magnetic fields are used to accelerate small, charged particles, Abouraddy says. For example, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland accelerates charged elementary particles in this way to probe the fundamental building blocks of matter.

For metallic particles at the micro-scale, large Van der Graaf machines accelerate these particles with electric fields.

This leaves dielectric particles –uncharged and non-conductive – at the micro- and nano-scales with no available approach to accelerate them, especially to the hyper-velocity regime.

The researchers propose to use space-time wave packets to achieve this goal for the first time.

This is UCF’s first Keck grant. William Myron Keck, the founder of the Superior Oil Company, established the Keck Foundation in 1954. Based in Los Angeles, the foundation is one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations with more than $1 billion in assets. According to the foundation, it seeks to invest in pioneering discoveries in science, engineering and medical research that will lead to breakthroughs and new technologies that save lives, offer innovative solutions and add to the understanding of life and of the universe. In 2020, the Keck Foundation awarded $62 million to institutions nationwide.