By Michael Newman ’78
Photography by Craig Mahaffey ’98 and Ashley Jones
Today, data is moving at the speed of light. Clemson researchers are positioned in the center of an industry valued at nearly $8 trillion annually.
As he arrived for employee orientation in 1997, the newest member of Clemson’s ceramic engineering department could hardly know that a bigger milestone than the start of his academic career was about to take place — the birth of Clemson’s world-class fiber optics research and development program.
“I sat next to Dave Carroll, a new hire in the physics department, and over coffee later that day, we discovered that we had common interests in the optical properties of materials,” says John Ballato, professor of materials science and engineering and J.E. Sirrine Endowed Chair of Optical Fiber. “By the next day, we were in each other’s labs, sharing equipment and forging the collaboration that was the nucleus of an optical materials team at Clemson.”
Today, the flourishing fruit borne from that seed is the Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies, or COMSET, a large-scale, interdisciplinary collaborative research center that Ballato, Carroll and three colleagues founded in 2000. In less than two decades, COMSET has positioned Clemson as an international leader in optical and optoelectronic materials, particularly fiber optics. Working closely with the private sector and the military, the group plays a key role in supporting and advancing the photonics industry that is valued globally at nearly $8 trillion annually.
COMSET’s list of credits and achievements is impressive. First and foremost, the center houses the only academic facility in the United States with industrial-scale capabilities for fabricating optical fiber. Served by 36 faculty from six departments, COMSET is home to two of Clemson’s four National Academy members, boasts three endowed chairs and six titled professors, has seeded more than 10 start-up companies, earned 10 researchers the National Science Foundation (NSF) prestigious CAREER Award, and over a five-year stretch has accounted for 6 percent of Clemson’s sponsored research from less than 2 percent of the University’s faculty.
The substance of that research is among the most diverse at Clemson, covering a broad spectrum of innovations, including advances, improvements and applications for high-power lasers; organic LEDs; light-emitting plastics, glasses and crystals; and even brain-stimulating optical nanoparticles.
As for why COMSET works so well, a recent external review conducted for the NSF of the center’s activities put it this way: “[COMSET] is a bit of a national treasure,” praised the reviewers, “… an extraordinary, coherent research program where all the pieces fit together perfectly.”