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Welcome Francesco Monticone

  • New Faculty (2017)

Francesco Monticone of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Cornell likes to work in the realm of theory. “The best possible project for me,” says Monticone, “would start with a study of the theoretical properties of a phenomenon and an effort to determine what the fundamental limits are. Then, I would work to design a new engineered material, or metamaterial, that would allow us to approach, or even go beyond, those limits.”

Monticone, who started at Cornell Engineering in January, 2017, studies electromagnetic waves and how new metamaterials could be used to control and engineer wave-matter interactions in unusual and extreme ways, along all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. One example is Monticone’s work on an invisibility cloak. While it may sound like the stuff of Harry Potter and science fiction, Monticone knows it is possible because he has done the math. “If you want to realize a cloak that would be able to make something invisible, that is theoretically possible, at least for a single color” says Monticone. “When you solve the equations that show this is possible, you often see that there are no materials readily available in nature that would work. Rather than letting that stop us, we simply need to create the materials.”

Instead of taking the scattershot approach of creating new materials and then, after they are made, seeing what sort of properties they have, Monticone takes an engineering approach. He starts with a specific problem and a theory and then he designs a solution to the problem facing him. An example of this process would be to start with a need: a material that is stable, non-toxic, inexpensive to fabricate, and with a long shelf-life that, when illuminated, would be able to quickly and accurately alert you to the presence of a particular biological agent in a sample of blood. Based on the requirements of the material, Monticone would then theorize the exact composition and structure that would exhibit the needed electromagnetic behaviors. He then creates the blueprint for an architectured metamaterial that will meet the need.

To help create a proof-of-concept experiment, Monticone then seeks out an experimentalist. “I am not a practical person at home or at work,” says Monticone with a grin. “I like to answer fundamental questions. But also, I am amazed when I see good experimentalists work. That is one reason I am so excited to be at Cornell. Here, I am surrounded by good experimentalists.”

Monticone grew up in northern Italy and earned both his Bachelor of Science and his Master of Science degrees in Electronics Engineering from the Politecnico di Torino. While deciding where to pursue his Ph.D. he wrote an email to Professor Andrea Alù at the University of Texas at Austin. Monticone had written with some technical questions and was surprised when the electronic correspondence led to an invitation to join Alù’s Metamaterials and Plasmonics Research Laboratory in Austin. Monticone jumped at the chance. “That was the best decision of my professional life,” says Monticone. “I did not even apply anywhere else.”

“Professor Alù was happy to give senior PhD students a lot of freedom—at the last part of my program I was more like a post-doc. I was very independent. I could propose my own ideas for projects and I could supervise undergraduates and other grad students. It was the best way to prepare for this job at Cornell.” When Monticone came to Ithaca he brought one graduate student with him from Austin. “My advisor and my mentors gave me great opportunities and it is important to me that I do the same for other students,” says Monticone.

Monticone plans to continue his research into metamaterials and their possible uses across many domains. The breadth of his research interests is made evident by a line on his current Cornell website. It is addressed to potential members of Monticone’s lab and it lists interests that would be of use in the lab: electromagnetism, metamaterials, nanophotonics, plasmonics, and/or acoustics/mechanics. He will also begin teaching in the Fall semester with a graduate-level class focusing on advanced electrodynamics, metamaterials and nanophotonics. Monticone says he is looking forward to teaching. “The process of creating this class is good—it forces me to go deep into the material and be able to clearly communicate what is important,” says Monticone. “Teaching is a good way to give what you know to the students. And it is a pleasure to teach some of the best students on the planet, here at Cornell.”

“I’m lucky. My job is also my passion so it can be hard to want to turn my mind away from a project. When I do, I like to hike and travel and to read both fiction and non-fiction.”

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