An MIT Alumni Association Publication
Imagine a tiny device stuck to a car’s front bumper that could scan for cars ahead of you on foggy roads and warn of their approach.

First-year student Saumil Bandyopadhyay. Photo: Alessandra Petlin/Smithsonian.
First-year student Saumil Bandyopadhyay. Photo: Alessandra Petlin/Smithsonian.

You could use that same detector, the size of a postage stamp, to scan for radioactivity in shipping containers, to detect cancer in bones, or to gauge melting on polar ice caps.

MIT first-year student Saumil Bandyopadhyay is thinking through these solutions, given the success of a new nanoscale infrared detector that he co-invented with his father, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The 18-year old has already impressed Nobel laureates and government and military researchers with his invention. Last month, the Smithsonian honored Bandyopadhyay with its American Ingenuity Award, given for groundbreaking work in the sciences, technology, and humanities.

Named this year’s youth honoree, Bandyopadhyay received his award at the National Portrait Gallery on November 19 alongside Stanford professor Caroline Winterer, acclaimed author Dave Eggers, singer-songwriter St. Vincent, and five others.

Bandyopadhyay’s infrared device capitalizes on nanotechnology to minimize the enormous heat given off by traditional infrared detectors. Requiring no liquid nitrogen to cool it down, the device may prove widely useful, perhaps even aiding the search for new planets or helping to detect land mines.

In his father’s lab at VCU, Bandyopadhyay was able to improve his invention while gaining great experience with chemistry and physics. Bringing the new device to science fairs, he attracted the attention of Nobel laureate astrophysicist John Mather, who alerted Smithsonian to what a great idea it was. “He’s a brilliant kid,” said Mather.

Arriving at MIT this fall, Bandyopadhyay felt right at home and has been enjoying his first experiences studying EECS. The environment on campus, of course, is rife with nanotechnology, with professors and labs discovering uses of it for cancer research, military defense, and chemical spills.

Despite being new to him, the MIT campus provided Bandyopadhyay with some familiarity. The fact that there’s no entryway into MIT dorms labeled “I” gave him a pleasant sort of welcome, as he explained to Smithsonian Magazine this month.

“In math, the convention is that the square root of negative one is I,” he said. “So I is imaginary.”

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