Dr. Lab

Member advances technology for living, working, and monitoring surroundings in space

3 August 2010
wj Photo: Northrop Grumman Corp.

It's one thing to win a lifetime achievement award in aerospace engineering. But it's even more memorable when your award gets you stage time with Star Trek film and TV legends.

Earlier this year, the National Society of Black Engineers honored IEEE Senior Member William L. Jones with its Celestial Torch Award 2010 Lifetime Achievement in Aerospace. He was cited for technical excellence, leadership, and contributions to the aerospace engineering field, thanks to his work in semiconductors at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, Calif. The ceremony, held during the society's Aerospace Systems Conference in February in Los Angeles, featured actors from the Star Trek franchise: LeVar Burton, who was the event's master of ceremonies; Anthony Montgomery, who introduced the award winner; Nichelle Nichols; and George Takei. (Interestingly, the original Star Trek TV series filmed several scenes for a 1967 episode at Space Park, the Northrop Grumman campus where Jones now works as a senior staff scientist and manager.)

"Sharing the stage with the Star Trek actors was a lot of fun," Jones says. "My daughter, wife, and I got to have our pictures taken with LeVar Burton and Nichelle Nichols."

Jones's research is bringing people closer to a real-life Star Trek scenario, by advancing technology for living, working, and monitoring our surroundings in space. A senior staff scientist and subproject manager in the Microelectronics Product Center at Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector in Redondo Beach, Calif., he oversees the delivery of technologies used in space flight. That includes monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs)—high-frequency, low-noise transistors used for communications and environmental sensors aboard space flights, including military surveillance systems, environmental and weather satellites, and space telescopes and observatories.

The holder of a Ph.D. from Cornell University, he is also the MMIC subproject manager for the integrated circuits that Northrop Grumman develops for the communications equipment it builds for the U.S. Air Force's Advanced Extremely High-Frequency military satellites, the U.S. military's most secure, next-generation communications relay satellites, the first of which is slated for launch this month. Its ultra-high-speed digital processors use lasers to increase communication data rates by 100 percent in a more lightweight and energy-efficient manner than previous satellites.

"It's rewarding to know that the ICs we made are enabling all these satellites to work," he says.

He received the TRW/Northrop Black Professional of the Year Award in 2001, 2006, and 2008. At the 2010 Black Engineer of the Year Awards Conference in Baltimore in February, he picked up the Trailblazer and Special Recognition awards for his contributions in microelectronics.

Jones showed an early affinity for electronics. While growing up in Reidsville, N.C., he would take apart and put back together small appliances just to see how they worked. He attended MIT, intending to double-major in electrical and mechanical engineering. He ultimately focused on EE when he realized how much it encompassed other engineering disciplines. From there, he went on to earn a master's degree and a Ph.D. in EE from Cornell.

Beginning with his doctoral research and continuing throughout his career, he specialized in crafting gallium arsenide semiconductors that use super-conductive materials optimized to allow the lowest amount of noise—unwanted sound and data that interfere with the signal. The gallium arsenide semiconductors are also faster, use less power, and produce clearer signals than their silicon counterparts.

"Gallium arsenide was an exotic material in the '80s, and Cornell had one of the very few research groups working with it," he says. His accomplishments helped him land the job at TRW, which wanted to fabricate chips from gallium arsenide. After a brief stint at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., as a member of the technical staff working on high-speed digital circuits, he joined the TRW space and electronics group (which was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2002) as a process development engineer.

The challenge was finding a way to integrate individual low-noise transistors with passive components to form MMICs while retaining the transistor's effectiveness. Adding the passive components required high-temperature processing that didn't degrade the transistor after it had been optimized to filter out noise.

Semiconductors were not the only elements that were optimized. At Northrop, Jones found ways to make his lab more efficient by teaching his technicians every step of the manufacturing process so he wouldn't have to micromanage them. He also borrowed techniques and equipment from other labs, such as low-temperature passivation (rendering materials non-reactive) that he couldn't do in his assigned lab. Taking the initiative to mine those resources, he was able to make the right kind of protective coatings for his semiconductors.

"In order to tap other people's skills and equipment, I had to know what other people were doing in their labs," he says. "I spent so much time in all of the labs, that one of my technicians renamed me Dr. Lab."

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