Subith Vasu, UCF associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, was recently awarded the prestigious Director’s Fellowship from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, one of just 12 researchers nationally to earn the 2020 research grant.

Vasu, an expert in spectroscopy and optical diagnostics, was awarded $250,000 by the Department of Defense to continue his work to develop a handheld device to help first responders and military personnel detect deadly toxins. He won the highly selective DARPA Young Faculty Award for the project in 2018 and received $250,000 for each of the past two years.

Vasu was selected for this new grant because of the progress he has made on the device, says Mike Fiddy, program manager in DARPA’s defense sciences office that oversees DARPA’s Young Faculty Award program.

He has been working on the mobile sensor to detect fentanyl and Carfentanil, opioids that are 50 to 10,000 times more potent than heroin. When dispersed in the air, the chemicals can kill. The sensor is being developed to also detect similar toxins, which are sometimes released in fires or explosions and pose threats to first responders. The toxins also can be used in chemical warfare.

“While DARPA and other agencies have been working on stand-off trace detection, it has been more for gases and in the IR [infrared region of the spectrum],” Fiddy says. “Regarding developed reflection spectroscopy systems, particularly those that claim to detect solids on a surface, no commercially available THz [terahertz] or IR systems immediately come to mind. Hence the importance of Vasu’s research.”

The award is significant since it is a way for DARPA to recognize some of their high performers, says Michael Georgiopoulos, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, adding that it is the first such award received at the university.

“For Vasu and UCF it means that federal funding from DARPA related to Vasu’s work could continue coming in a sustained fashion to advance research and innovation,” Georgiopoulos says.

The DARPA program seeks to establish and sustain young scientists pursuing high-risk, high-reward research by pairing them with DARPA program managers and providing funding. Vasu’s research associate, Anthony C. Terracciano, executed most of the device work. The team also collaborated with professors Artem Masunov, Mengyu Xu and Robert Peale from UCF to accelerate their work.

Vasu previously received a young investigator grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, American Chemical Society’s Doctoral New Investigator, American Society of Mechanical Engineers Dilip Ballal Early Career Award, and the Society of Automotive Engineers SAE Ralph R. Teetor Educational Award. He received many highest honors at UCF including the important UCF Luminary and Reach for the Stars awards.

Vasu’s lab has ongoing projects with several federal agencies, including NASA, the Air Force, Army, Navy, Department of Energy, Federal Aviation Administration and others.

Before joining UCF in 2012 as an assistant professor, he was a postdoctoral researcher at Sandia National Laboratory. He earned his doctorate from Stanford University in 2010. He is a member of the Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research at UCF, is an associate fellow of the American Institute of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a member of the International Energy Agency’s Task Team on Energy.

A second 2020 Director’s Fellowship was awarded to optics and photonics researcher Mercedeh Khajavikhan for work done at UCF on topological phenomena in active photonic platforms before she took a position as an associate professor at the University of Southern California last fall.

Khajavikhan, whose grant was $235,871, remains a courtesy faculty member at UCF because she is still finishing up some work with students.

Story by Gene Kruckemyer ’73, UCF Today