CUNY ASRC Photonics Team Part of a $30M NSF Center Established to Investigate New Frontiers of Sound Science

Sound waves spectrum
Credit: Getty Images

NEW YORK, September 7, 2023 — The National Science Foundation has granted a multi-institutional team $30 million over five years to establish a new NSF Science and Technology Center. The New Frontiers of Sound Science and Technology Center, which comes with an additional $30 million funding option over the following five years, will bring together researchers working in topological acoustics. The team is led by principal investigator Pierre Deymier, a University of Arizona (UArizona) professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Engineering. Co-principal investigators, including Andrea Alù, founding director of the Advanced Science Research Center at the CUNY Graduate Center’s (CUNY ASRC) Photonics Initiative, Distinguished Professor and Einstein Professor of Physics at the CUNY Graduate Center; Sara Chavarria, of UArizona; Chiara Daraio of the California Institute of Technology; and Massimo Ruzzene of the University of Colorado Boulder.

Professor Alù of the CUNY ASRC will lead the team’s research on topological acoustics and its applications to wireless communications and sound technologies. With topological acoustics, researchers exploit the properties of sound in ways that could vastly improve computing, telecommunications, and sensing. Applications could include reaching quantum-like computing speeds, reducing the power usage of smartphones, and sensing changes in aging infrastructure or the natural environment due to climate change.

“This newly funded center brings together a synergistic team to leverage the initial proof-of-concept discoveries that my group and others have been working on in the area of topology for the last several years,” said Alù. “Our collective work aims to push these concepts into groundbreaking scientific and engineering advances that we expect to impact wireless technologies, energy-efficient computing, bio-medical and environmental sensing, and other important societal benefits. These highly interdisciplinary activities are very well suited with the spirit of our mission at the  CUNY ASRC.”

“Today’s science is nearly always collaborative, and groundbreaking work requires cooperation and collegiality, such as that seen in proposing this NSF center across the participating research-leading institutions, including the CUNY ASRC,” said Mark Hauber, the new executive director of the CUNY ASRC.

“We all know technologies such as the loudspeaker or the microphone, but we also use sound for sensing environments, such as with sonar and ultrasound medical imaging, and for data transmission and processing every day in your smartphone,” said center director and project principal investigator Deymier. “However, the quiet revolution advancing sound science and technology is afoot. And that is where the new center comes in.”

“Scientific discovery is the engine that drives human progress and underlies all of the technologies that we benefit from today,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “NSF’s Science and Technology Centers enable our most creative scientists and engineers to open new vistas of scientific inquiry and make the discoveries that will keep the U.S. in the forefront of scientific discovery.”

Mapping sound to space

Using topological acoustics is a sophisticated way of looking at sound that maps sound waves to an abstract multidimensional space, called a Hilbert Space, to examine their geometry. By examining sound in this way, scientists can see and manipulate attributes of sound waves that aren’t visible in traditional acoustics.

Topological acoustics exploits attributes of sound waves that so far have remained hidden. It harnesses the full power of acoustic waves, enabling extraordinary properties of sound such as sound waves that mimic quantum waves or that can hit a hard surface without generating an echo. These properties can affect a huge number of technologies.

To investigate sound through a topological acoustics lens, scientists form a vector by using all of the points in space that a sound travels through as graph points on the Hilbert Space. The angle of this amplitude vector is known as the geometric phase and provides a visual representation of the geometry of sound.

A simplified example is if a sound is traveling through a room and an object is moved, added, or removed, the effect on the sound may not be noticeable when observed through the lens of traditional acoustics, such as frequency. But it could be seen when examined with topological acoustics, because such minor changes alter the geometry of the sound. New discoveries made by the team could supercharge the field of acoustics by allowing researchers to see information they currently cannot.

An array of applications

This improved understanding of acoustic properties could lead to new computing methods, vastly improved telecommunications, and new sensing capabilities for fields such as environmental science and medicine.

  • A Quantum Analog – Topological acoustics researchers could take the billions of data points they map from a sound field and use them as input data for computing, creating a system that controls these data points with extremely high precision. Quantum computing exploits unique relationships, such as entanglement, between units of light called photons. But, with topological acoustics, researchers could form analogous relationships between units of sound called phonons to reap the same benefits.
  • Telecommunications — Devices such as cell phones contain acoustic components that convert electromagnetic waves into acoustic waves and then electrical signals. Because acoustic waves are smaller, they can pass through tiny filtering mechanisms that deliver the correct signal. At higher speeds and capabilities, like 5G and 6G, more filtering mechanisms are required. Engineers and scientists can use topological acoustics to build environments where sound passes through with less energy loss, using less power to increase battery life.
  • Sensing – While using sound waves in telecommunications involves preventing the sound waves from scattering as much as possible, sensing uses this scattering to its advantage. The precision of topological acoustics could allow for unparalleled sensitivity in sensing things like disease in tissue, defects in buildings, dryness of soil in fire-prone forests, and the thawing of permafrost in the arctic.

Educational element

Those who haven’t heard of topological acoustics aren’t alone. That is one big reason the center is providing training and education across multiple disciplines and to people from different backgrounds. Establishing a common language for experts in fields ranging from materials science and electrical engineering to geosciences and mathematics will help the world benefit from the work, those involved in the project say.

The researchers will write a textbook and accompanying digital resources about topological acoustics and launch a center-scale Research Experience and Mentorship, or REM, program to provide opportunities for students underrepresented in STEM to access mentoring and research experience in topological acoustics.

“As a Latina first-generation college graduate, it is important to me that the center emphasizes how committed we are to being inclusive of diverse sciences that align with TA (topological acoustics) work but also inclusive of diverse cultural experiences and backgrounds of our research, education, and student community,” said co-principal investigator Chavarria. “The outcome we expect is that this field of TA will be one that represents the world’s needs, because we will have trained students of diverse backgrounds to be the future TA scientists, engineers, leaders, and educators.”

Center partners include CUNY ASRC; CalTech; Georgia Tech; Spelman College; University of Alaska Fairbanks; University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Colorado Boulder; and Wayne State University.

About the Advanced Science Research Center at the CUNY Graduate Center
The Advanced Science Research Center at the CUNY Graduate Center (CUNY ASRC) is a world-leading center of scientific excellence that elevates STEM inquiry and education at CUNY and beyond. The CUNY ASRC’s research initiatives span five distinctive, but broadly interconnected disciplines: nanoscience, photonics, neuroscience, structural biology, and environmental sciences. The center promotes a collaborative, interdisciplinary research culture where renowned and emerging scientists advance their discoveries using state-of-the-art equipment and cutting-edge core facilities.

About the Graduate Center of The City University of New York
The CUNY Graduate Center is a leader in public graduate education devoted to enhancing the public good through pioneering research, serious learning, and reasoned debate. The Graduate Center offers ambitious students nearly 50 doctoral and master’s programs of the highest caliber, taught by top faculty from throughout CUNY — the nation’s largest urban public university. Through its nearly 40 centers, institutes, initiatives, and the Advanced Science Research Center, the Graduate Center influences public policy and discourse and shapes innovation. The Graduate Center’s extensive public programs make it a home for culture and conversation.