University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of EngineeringOnline: Spring 2012
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  John Woolam left, Electrical Engineering graduate student Brian Rodenhausen works with Biological Systems Engineering graduate student Tadas Kasputis on biomedical thin films applications using ellipsometry.  


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Ellipsometry measures thin films applied as coatings to the surfaces of materials. In electronics these thin coatings control how a material can store data, display images on screens, or determine how well a solar cell converts light into energy. Ellipsometry plays an important role in measuring coatings for these important, everyday applications and more. It’s worth wondering: without ellipsometry, would we enjoy the proliferation of electronic technology we have today? How did ellipsometry become a renowned area of strength at the University of Nebraska? And what are its possibilities for the future?

Past | Present | Future

Woollam photoJohn Woollam came to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 1979 after 13 years with NASA. He agreed to take over the work of Nick Bashara (who was retiring). Woollam saw that the instrumentation needed to be automated for greater service in research on materials and thin films. Computers enabled the automation of data acquisition and were eventually powerful enough to perform the complex calculations required for data analysis in ellipsometry.

As Nebraska Engineering Contacts noted in 2003, “Optical coatings control the amounts of light that are reflected or transmitted whenever light is incident on the boundary between two media. They can be used in telecommunications to set up multiple channels of coded information simultaneously, while selecting out certain frequencies. They can also be used for temperature control in space through energy conversion by absorbing light from the sun and converting the heat that is absorbed.”

In an early example of technology transfer, the J.A. Woollam Company was founded in 1987: with a cadre of graduate students, the company began manufacturing research ellipsometers in Lincoln. Woollam, his students and colleagues, have kept a successful focus on what researchers and industry need from their optics equipment.


Celebrating 25 years in 2012, the J.A. Woollam Co. has grown to more than 50 employees, with more than 140 patents. The company maintains an ongoing relationship with UNL through technology transfer, supported research, and the hiring of graduates from throughout the university.

The company also does a good job keeping Nebraska graduates in the state, Synowicki observed.

Woollam works with both undergraduate and graduate students and fosters long-term relationships. Scholarships and fellowships, as well as donated instruments, are additional benefits. Nebraska students who learn how to operate ellipsometers are more valuable to partners in industry because of that skill set.

Leon Castro, an EE alumnus who now works for NUtech Ventures and helps commercialize technologies developed at UNL, said Woollam positively influenced his career. “As a student I conducted research for John, and I valued his mentoring–helping his students make the best choices with their research to advance their careers,” Castro said. “Also the economic impact for Lincoln and Nebraska, to have this world-class company here, is incredible.”

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