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At 18, he helps US Army with unique infrared detector

December 26, 2013 17:42 IST

At 18, he helps US Army with unique infrared detector

Suman Guha Mozumder

From inventing low-cost devices to innovative ways of helping make math and science easy for students, meet three Indian Americans pushing the boundaries.

In the first part of a three-part series beginning today, Suman Guha Mozumder speaks to 18-year old Saumil Bandyopadhyay who was named a recipient of the second annual American Ingenuity Awards by Smithsonian magazine, the flagship publication of Smithsonian Media, for a unique, sensitive infrared radiation detector.

MIT freshman Saumil Bandyopadhyay was named a recipient of the second annual American Ingenuity Awards by Smithsonian magazine, the flagship publication of Smithsonian Media, for a unique, sensitive infrared radiation detector that promises to be inexpensive and has scientific, civilian and military applications.

The device being developed by Saumil, 18, has already attracted the interest of the United States Army, which has taken him to work in one of its engineering laboratories.

Saumil is one of the 10 groundbreaking individuals honoured with the American Ingenuity Awards across categories including technology, performing and visual arts, natural and physical sciences, education, historical scholarship, social progress and youth achievement.

The honourees were recognised at an awards gala at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, November 19; in Smithsonian magazine’s special Ingenuity Awards December issue; and on

‘While their work is different in objective, each winner is embracing the Smithsonian’s mission to increase knowledge and shape the world of tomorrow,’ Michael Caruso, editor in chief, Smithsonian magazine, was quoted as saying.

As a toddler, Saumil used to be taken to his father Supriyo Bandyopadhyay’s office in the Virginia Commonwealth University, where the elder Bandyopadhyay has been a professor of electrical engineering and computer engineering.

As a 2-year-old, even before he could speak, Saumil started doing additions and subtractions with apples or tennis balls, his father said.

“He skipped developmental stages in the sense he started from sitting to standing and then walking. He never crawled,” Bandyopadhyay said, recalling that his son’s childhood development was in “fits and starts”.

But Saumil’s passion for science began when he was in middle school.

“I did not understand a lot of what he (Bandyopadhyay) was doing when I used to go to his office,” Saumil told India Abroad. “When people would ask me what I want to do when I grow up, I would say I would like to be my father. I got into science actually when I went to middle school.”

In seventh grade, Saumil had to do a science project.

“I ended up working on bacteria,” he said. “It was a microbiology-related project which did not work very well, although I got an honour for that. That is how and when I really got excited in science.”

Over the years, his interest moved from biology to chemistry, and finally to physics. “This (infrared radiation detector) project, for which I got the award, actually started after ninth grade,” Saumil said. “That took off when I read an article on infrared detectors and what we can use them for. I used some of the knowledge that was already there, but I was trying to see how we can better the technology.”

Human eyes are terribly weak and cannot see infrared, Saumil explained. Infrared detection can be used for guarding against car collisions or finding landmines in battlegrounds. Infrared detectors, he said, can also be used to monitor global warming, and used in astronomy.

“But currently there are issues,” he said. “One of them is that our best detectors require tanks of liquid nitrogen to operate. That is a problem. So if you want to avoid a collision, you cannot have tanks of liquid nitrogen in a car. One thing I focused on is to how to make it work at room temperature. I also looked at a design that can be easily mass-produced. So my device works at room temperature, and it is easily mass producible.”

When Saumil discussed the idea with his father, he gave him books on quantum mechanics.

“Then he came out with a very interesting idea,” Professor Bandyopadhyay said, “saying that he could use quantum mechanics to overcome this limitation and make it work at room temperature and go beyond classical physics. I looked at it and told him that it’s a very exotic idea and has very low chance of working, but I told him to spend time in the lab and see what he can do with the idea.”

Saumil did, and made his father Supriyo and mother Anuradha very proud.

“It was rewarding for us,” Saumil’s father said. “The original idea was his, but the principles that he needed to learn was taught by me. I had excellent research students and he worked with them in the lab. All that is fulfilling for me -- not just as an educator but as a parent. He is our only child. As parents we hope he maintains this spirit.”

Saumil -- who has authored five peer-reviewed scientific papers -- has won many awards and honours. These include:

  • Placing fourth in Physics and Astronomy at the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
  • Being an invited exhibitor at the 2013 White House Science Fair.
  • National finalist in Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology (4th place and $30,000 scholarship, 2012).
  • Davidson Fellow ($10,000 scholarship, 2012); semifinalist at the Intel Science Talent Search (2013).
  • Second place in Physics, first place prize from SPIE and an all-expense paid trip to CERN at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
  • First place in research (among 200 participants from eight countries) at the International Space Olympics held in Korolyev, Russia, where he represented the United States as a member of the Virginia team (2011).
  • Semi-finalist in the Google Science Fair (top 0.8 percent of projects, 2011); fourth place in Chemistry.
  • Second place award from the Air Force at the 2010 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

In 11th grade, after his papers were published in journals, the US Army contacted his father -- because Saumil was still a minor -- asking Saumil to work as an intern.

“All these because he has always been in love with science,” Bandyopadhyay said.

There is also another story behind the infrared radiation detector project.

When he was in high school, Saumil was scared of test-driving his mother’s car. He was petrified of collision with cars coming from some direction he could not see or the times when he had to merge into lanes.

“I used to be terrified especially in low light,” Saumil confessed.

So he worked on the infrared detector, which might reduce car-crash rates ‘by allowing vehicles to sense each other in fog or darkness,’  Smithsonian magazine wrote in the article on Saumil.

Saumil, who works at the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s adjunct facility in Alexandria, Virginia, is not sure of his future goals yet.

“I would like to work wherever there is scope for scientific research,” he said. “That is what I love and would like to pursue.”

Image: Saumil Bandyopadhyay is a freshman at MIT