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Doctoral Student Earns Global Recognition

By Sherry DiBari

Benjamin (Ben) Belfore, a newly minted Ph.D. in electrical engineering, recently received good news. A device he fabricated - a spin polarized photocathode - was recorded as second best in the world.

The device was tested and certified at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.

Photocathodes - materials that convert light (photo) into electrons - are vital to the performance of particle accelerators like the one at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab).

Belfore's device, and subject of his dissertation, is a spin polarized photocathode. "The spin polarized portion means that only electrons of a given spin (fundamental property like mass or charge) will be excited," he explained. "The spin of an electron can be thought of as the direction that the electron rotates as it travels."

The development of the photocathode, supported by a $500,000 Department of Energy grant, was done in coordination with three different institutions: Old Dominion University, Jefferson Lab and Brookhaven National Lab.

"What we did was create a spin polarized photocathode that is the second best recorded and the best created with our specific growth process," Belfore said.

Belfore acknowledged that research can be challenging. "The one thing that people never discuss is that research is 90% failure," he said. "As you go through experimental research, it's a process of trying something, failing, and using that knowledge to try something new."

At ODU, Belfore's research success is not a surprise.

"Ben is a unique type of researcher, having a background in chemical engineering, studying electrical engineering and working on a problem that is mostly materials engineering," said Sylvain Marsillac, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "He managed to combine these three fields to fabricate one of the best spin-polarized electron sources in the world in less than 2 years."

In 2019, Marsillac began discussing a spin polarized photocathode collaboration with Jefferson Lab. He worked with Matthew Poelker from the Electron Gun Group to start the process.

Belfore, who was Marsillac's research assistant, decided to use the project as his dissertation topic. The timing was perfect. "I was fortunate to be about halfway through my dissertation studies when the work started in earnest," Belfore said. "Dr. Marsillac provided invaluable expertise and experience to help guide me."

Although Belfore earned his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at Virginia Tech, he selected ODU for his graduate studies. "I chose ODU for both the proximity and the opportunity to work in a field that interested me: semiconductor processes," he said.

He was already familiar with ODU. His father, Lee Before, is a professor in ODU's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"My father and his father were both major inspirations for me," Belfore said. "They were both electrical engineers and they inspired me to explore a field in engineering."

Luckily engineering came naturally to Belfore. "I was very interested in STEM as a child," Belfore said. "If I had to guess, it probably started with 'I want to be just like my dad' kind of thing, but at the end of the day, I fell in love with the prospect of working on interesting problems that make the world better."

Belfore won't be staying around Hampton Roads though. He headed off to Idaho to work as a research and development engineer for Micron Technology.

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