Friday profile: making tiny tech from sunlight

Microphotonics – a field of light science that deals with nano-fabrication and the manipulation of microscopic particles – impacts our day-to-day lives in more ways than we might realise.

Professor Baohua Jia at Swinburne University in Melbourne leads a team that has developed a graphene lens 1000 times thinner than a human hair – a discovery that paves the way for cameras and mobile phones only one billionth of a metre deep. 

Jia is a research leader at the university’s Centre for Microphotonics. She is also honorary treasurer of the Australian Optical Society, and an avid sports fan. The 40-year-old has been at Swinburne since gaining her PhD, and loves her field with a passion.

“Nanotechnology helps us to understand the world from the fundamental building blocks,” she explains. “By studying nanotechnology, we can link macroscopic material properties back to their atomic and molecular level, so that we have much more control of the world.” 

But it isn’t control that drives Jia in her research: her main focus is working in tandem with the natural environment, to develop tech that does not damage ecosystems. This, she says, is what drew her to light sciences in the first place. 

“My passion with light started from my undergraduate study,” Jia says. “Light is the form of energy the sun gives to everyone, which enables the world without any environmental impact.

“I like simple rules that work. My interest is to discover and share these rules to make the world serve us better, without destroying it.”

The non-invasive gift of sunlight and its associated technologies have impacts across countless industries, from laser diagnostics to biomedical surgery, surveillance imaging, and, of course, manufacturing. 

So why focus on the microscopic side of light-tech? “Nanotechnology allows us to learn from nature, and to create useful materials or devices that do not exist in the world,” she says.

“For example, using lasers, we are able to fabricate artificial crystal and structures that mimic the butterfly wing. Using these manmade materials, we could manipulate light at our wish.”

The use of graphene does not stop at camera lenses, and Jia is working on adapting this form of carbon to improve our day-to-day lives, without impacting the environment. 

“We could use this material to fabricate a supercapacitor – an energy storage device which can charge a device in seconds and has a lifetime of more than 10,000 cycles,” she says. “More importantly, it is environmentally friendly.”

Combining innovation with an environmental conscience is surely a noble pursuit, but Jia says she loves scientific research for its creative attributes, too.

“This is one of very few professions that allow you to create something based on your own ideas on a daily basis,” she says. 

“Every problem is different and challenging, and requires innovative solutions. This is indeed a fun process.”

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