KAUST Associate Professor Andrea Fratalocchi elected Fellow of the Optical Society

KAUST Associate Professor Andrea Fratalocchi was elected a Fellow of the Optical Society in September. File photo.

By David Murphy, KAUST News

Andrea Fratalocchi, associate professor in the University's Computer, Electrical and Mathematical Science and Engineering division, was recently elected as a Fellow of the Optical Society (OSA) at the society's Board of Directors meeting in September.

The OSA, founded in 1916, is the leading professional association in optics and photonics. With his Fellow membership, Fratalocchi joins a distinguished group of OSA members who have served with distinction in the advancement of optics and photonics. 

Fratalocchi was honored for his "pioneering innovations in the use of complex optical systems and the development of creative technologies in clean energy harvesting, bio-imaging and advanced optical materials," OSA stated.

The Fellowship was awarded largely to the research results Fratalocchi has produced over the past decade at KAUST. Thus far, the scope of his research has generated strong funding and large interest from media and industry, and it has also attracted a wide range of students and collaborators to his research group.

"It feels like a real honor to be recognized by this Fellowship," Fratalocchi said. "My research at KAUST created virtuous feedback that fueled the impact and recognition necessary to obtain the Fellowship. The OSA is a world-leading society for optics and photonics, and receiving such appreciation from my peers is extremely gratifying."

Associate Professor Andrea Fratalocchi is pictured here working in the lab on campus. At the University, he heads the Primalight Lab research group. File photo.

Complexity science

Since joining KAUST in 2011 from his role as a postdoctoral fellow at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, Fratalocchi has dedicated himself to the advancement of the field of physics and engineering—and recently to the study of applied complexity. This novel form of research tries to understand complex physical systems (regulated by a large number of interacting degrees of freedom) and transform them into different technologies.

The approach is characterized by nonlinearity, unlike traditional "cause and effect," or linear thinking. Examples of applied complexity include chaos theory, rare events, brain functions, natural mimicry and camouflage, swarms cooperative dynamics, intelligence, etc.

"Despite that in some cases, the evolution of these systems seems dictated by relatively simple interactions—such as predator-prey games in nature or neurons that send electric stimuli to their nearest neighbors—the effects arising are advanced and sophisticated [and have] a common denominator: extreme efficiency and sustainability," Fratalocchi noted.

"I want to understand the physical origin of these behaviors and transform them into sustainable technologies that tackle the contemporary problem[s] of global interest, ranging from energy harvesting to clean water production, design of smart materials, biomedical applications, information security, artificial intelligence, global warming and so on," he continued.

Members of Associate Professor Andrea Fratalocchi's Primalight Lab research group (pictured here) work on a large array of projects at the University. Photo by Andrea Bachofen-Echt.

'A great leap in the advancement of science'

Fratalocchi's Primalight Lab research group members are busy developing a host of projects—these range from the realization of new laser printing technologies that use only light and no pigments or dyes to new high performing flat materials for wavefront engineering designed via artificial intelligence.

The team also works on the realization of new neurophotonic chips that work entirely by artificial intelligence and are based on a new concept of "universal learning."

"Each of these chips has almost no electrical wires and writes itself the program required to tackle a specific problem by using an insignificant amount of power," Fratalocchi explained. "It can perform functions that even the best current CPU cannot perform and at an ultrafast light speed. We are in the process of testing the first prototype and we are very excited to see it in action."

The overarching goal of Fratalocchi's future research is to understand the physics of complex systems. He believes that through understanding the physics of complex systems lies the key to performing a great leap in developing future technologies in many fields.

Primalight Lab research group members (from left to right) Maksim Makarenko, Ning Li and Redha H. Al Ibrahim work together in the lab. Photo by Andrea Bachofen-Echt.

"Some examples of complex systems can easily clarify this statement: Each neuron in the brain dissipates less than 1 nW, [and] this power is 1 millionth the one dissipated by the most sophisticated transistor fabricated today," he said. "The camouflage of specific mollusks is more advanced than the most sophisticated nanomaterial engineered today; they can also dynamically change—contrary to the best man-made structures. Human babies develop spontaneous language abilities and cognitive thoughts, none of which happen in the most advanced technology platform available."

"All these systems are designed in a language that linguistics would call 'nonlinear orthography,' and that gives to these systems incredible robustness, scalability, efficiency and sustainability," Fratalocchi continued. "I firmly believe that in the understanding of these systems, or equivalently in the development of a new 'nonlinear orthographic' language for designing technologies, lies the secret key that can enable a great leap in the advancement of science."

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