Faculty Profile: Harley Johnson

Harley Johnson’s research at the Beckman Institute and the University of Illinois has its foundations in one of the oldest sciences, mechanics, but the applications he is working toward are truly 21st Century.  

Harley Johnson’s research at the Beckman Institute and the University of Illinois has its foundations in one of the oldest sciences, mechanics, but the applications he is working toward are truly 21st Century.  

            “I try to better understand how materials work in high-tech, next generation applications,” Johnson said. “Some of the things I’m interested in right now are microelectronics, lasers, and most recently photovoltaics, solar cells.”

Johnson is a member of Beckman’s Computational Multiscale Nanosystems group who has research interests in the areas of the mechanics of quantum dots, and the micro- and nanomechanics of electronic materials, nanostructures, and photonics materials.

“My degrees are in mechanics, which are in some ways a very traditional field,” Johnson said. “In graduate school I was exposed to how we apply solid mechanics to new technologies, things like microelectronics. I found that really stimulating, to take the principles that we learn when we study, for example, bridge design, which has been around for hundreds of years, and apply that to developing new materials for microelectronics or lasers.

“That was something I became fascinated with in graduate school, bridging that gap between this very traditional science and high tech, cutting edge, next generation technology.”

Johnson received his Ph.D. in Engineering from Brown University in 1999 and taught at Boston University prior to coming to Illinois. He is a Cannon Faculty Scholar and an Associate Professor in the Mechanical Science and Engineering Department at the University of Illinois. His research interests include futuristic concepts and potential applications such as optical cloaking and solar cells with as much as 10 times the efficiency as current photovoltaic cells.

“We’re working on quantum dots that could potentially make solar cells much more efficient,” Johnson said. “We use a particular semiconductor alloy that absorbs part of the sun’s energy that otherwise wouldn’t be absorbed by the conventional solar cell in which only a very small fraction of the light that comes into the cell is converted to electricity, maybe five to 10 percent. By tinkering with the composition of the material using these particles it is possible, in principle, to get that efficiency number up to 30, 40, or 50 percent.”    

Johnson is also involved in a new project funded by a Beckman seed grant to make materials for higher energy density batteries. This new project and the one involving solar cells are energy-related research lines he believes could have an important impact in the future.

 “The main thing is it’s exciting to work on something that we think could make a big difference in getting away from fossil fuels,” Johnson said.

This past year has been a banner one for Johnson, both professionally and personally.

Johnson had won a prestigious NSF Faculty Early Development (CAREER) Award in 2001 and this year he was named as the 2010 winner of the Thomas J.R. Hughes Young Investigator Award from the Applied Mechanics Division of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The award is for special achievement for young investigators in Applied Mechanics and is given to just one winner each year.

“The NSF Career Award was a great thing because I was fortunate to get it very early on in my career and that set me up to build on,” Johnson said. “The Thomas J. Hughes Young Investigator Award is from ASME, my professional society, and is recognition for achievement in mechanics and is based on the things I am working on now.”

Earlier in 2010, Johnson became a naturalized American citizen during a swearing-in ceremony at Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana. He is from western Canada originally but had been living in the United States since elementary school and always planned on becoming a citizen of this country.

“It’s something I always figured I would do having been educated here, built my career here and now I’ve young kids, so I have roots here,” he said. “It was very meaningful. My wife and kids are American and, even though I’ve always felt part of this community since I moved here 10 years ago, it made me feel more connected.”

Johnson has been at Beckman for three years and feels very connected to the Institute as well.

“To me the clear number one thing about being at Beckman is the automatic interaction you get with other people here,” he said. “On this hallway there are people in materials science, aerospace engineering, and mechanical engineering. You get people who are like-minded but with different disciplinary backgrounds here.

“I think having a central, focused institutional mission toward several critical research areas drives things forward much more rapidly than you would get in a conventional departmental setting.”   

This article is part of the Fall 2010 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.