Engineering fellow develops multi-functional materials that can “see” infrared waves while reflecting radio frequencies Meet Emma Renteria

Engineering fellow develops multi-functional materials that can “see” infrared waves while reflecting radio frequencies

Emma Renteria is studying ultra-thin materials such as black phosphorus for practical uses. (Photo Credit: Emma J. Renteria)

Emma Renteria’s path in science and engineering began in high school when she joined a club that encouraged young girls to pursue non-traditional careers for women.  She participated in a field trip to the International Business Machines (IBM) corporation, which was her first encounter with engineering. Later, during a career fair, Renteria was introduced to circuits on a semiconductor wafer. She was amazed that devices on that wafer made computers work. When she went home, she mentioned what she learned to her father. He told her he believed computers are the future. That affirmation gave her a decisive boost toward her future career.

“I was thrilled to join computer engineering at the University of New Mexico,” she said. “Besides being a non-conventional path for women, it required learning a vast amount of mathematics, and I loved solving math problems.”

During Renteria’s first year, her math professor invited her to a luncheon where students had the opportunity to meet women engineers who shared their experiences in the field. “I learned that chemical and electrical engineers did semiconductor processing, so I changed my major to chemical engineering.”

Then, in her junior year, Renteria began working as a research assistant in the Balakrishnan research group at the Center for High Technology Materials. She transitioned to work in the Francesca Cavallo research group in 2021, where she developed and tested processing techniques for ultra-thin materials. Renteria graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and later a doctorate in electrical engineering.

After hearing about the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)’s Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program (IC Postdoc program), Renteria wrote a research proposal and was accepted.

The IC Postdoc Program offers scientists and engineers from a wide variety of disciplines unique opportunities to conduct research relevant to the intelligence community. Cavallo, one of her advisors, joined Renteria as her mentor. She became a fellow at the Center for High Technology Materials in the Cavallo research group.

She is developing bendable and lightweight materials that can “see” infrared-light (IR) while being protected from radio waves that can significantly disrupt their operation.

“Our work focuses on integrating a IR-transparent radio wave shield with an IR detector in a sheet that can conform to non-flat surfaces, such as windows on an aircraft and domes in IR cameras,” explained Renteria.”

Engineering fellow develops multi-functional materials that can “see” infrared waves while reflecting radio frequencies

Renteria wearing a “bunny suit,” not to protect herself, but to protect the sensitive equipment from human contaminants. (Photo Credit: Emma J. Renteria)

She achieves this with a two-dimensional crystalline base, such as black phosphorus. While the hope is to engineer parts for electronics that last longer and cause less interference with one another, the research is also pushing forward technological advances and fundamental knowledge about ultra-thin materials.

“The performance of the IR detectors is still below the threshold of mature technologies,” said Renteria. “But we are just getting started. There is a lot of room for improvement, and the second year of the fellowship will focus primarily on optimizing materials and devices.”

Renteria is finalizing two manuscripts on her recent research. She has filed a patent on the structure and fabrication process of multi-functional materials and has presented at multiple conferences, including the 48th Conference on the Physics and Chemistry of Surfaces and Interfaces, Redondo Beach, in a talk called “Black Phosphorus/GaAs Heterojunctions for Infrared Detection.”

Renteria also is passionate about giving back to the community by inspiring new generations to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“I like to participate in outreach events that promote STEM to younger generations,” said Renteria. “These events are many kids’ first encounters with engineering, material science, or nanotechnology. I consider myself very lucky to have been in a high school club that inspired me to discover and pursue my path in STEM. I am working to ensure that others benefit from the opportunities and the outstanding mentorship I’ve had since high school.”

From seeing her first semiconductor in high school to running experiments on them, Renteria has always been passionate about science. She is carving a unique path in science and engineering that will merge her passion for research, mentorship and informal education.

“I highly recommend the IC Postdoc Research program,” Renteria said. “It is a great opportunity to do innovative research, improve your research skills and expand your professional network and career opportunities.”

The Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program is funded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the IC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.