Conquering Darkness and Harnessing the Sun

Dr. Sivalingam (Siva) Sivananthan

Siva Sivananthan is being honored as a Champion of Change for his accomplishments as an immigrant entrepreneur and innovator.

I am honored to have been named a White House Champion of Change.  Though this recognition has been bestowed on me, this honor belongs to all those who shaped and enabled me to succeed, including my family, university, community, my country of birth, Sri Lanka, and the United States of America.

My journey began in Chavakacheri, Sri Lanka, where I was the sixth of nine children born to humble, hard-working schoolteachers. After being raised in a loving household that valued education above all else, I departed Sri Lanka for the United States in 1982 to study physics at the Microphysics Laboratory (MPL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). 

At UIC, I obtained my Master’s and Ph.D. in physics. More importantly, at this urban university that encouraged its faculty to engage and help its surrounding community, I learned “service to others” and found the path through which I could best serve America. In 1994, I became the Director of MPL and made it my mission to pioneer the growth of an infrared-detecting material, mercury cadmium telluride (MCT), used for high performance night-vision cameras in military and space applications. Through dedication, commitment, and passion, and with the strong support of UIC, the MPL team pioneered the molecular beam epitaxial (MBE) growth of MCT, allowing it to become the dominant material in infrared (IR) night-vision technology.

In 1998, I founded companies to assist in the further development and incubation of the IR technology I helped develop. The resultant IR technology, including night-vision capability, has become a cornerstone of U.S. defense, and has saved the lives of thousands of our warfighters. In 1991, at the end of the First Gulf War, General Barry McCaffrey said, “Our night vision capability provided the single greatest mismatch of the war.” In 2005, I received the honor of being presented the “Friend of the Night, Conquest of Darkness” award by the U.S. Army Night Vision Laboratory. In 2011, given the accomplishments of my MPL team and myself, I was named Liberal Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Physics at UIC.

Today, the same material that was developed for night vision military capabilities, namely cadmium telluride, is now the basis of one of the world’s leading solar technologies.  Our MPL team has dedicated a great deal of research to lowering the cost of solar energy in order to create inexpensive, inexhaustible, and renewable electric power. In Illinois, where we have rich talent to further develop solar technology, I helped found the nonprofit organization InSPIRE (the Institute for Solar Photovoltaic Innovation, Research, and Edu-training). InSPIRE is helping to nurture a solar ecosystem in Illinois by exciting high school and college students to enter the field. Given the terrific human and manufacturing capital in the Midwest, I envision America’s heartland becoming a hub for solar technology, providing good-paying jobs to thousands of workers.  I am committed to making this dream a reality.

As a faculty member at an urban campus of a state university, I have considered it my responsibility to help children in Chicago obtain a good education. To that end, I have established programs and scholarships to assist students, science teachers and student clubs at local schools for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In addition, inspired by the famous Bell Labs, I created a high-tech incubator, Sivananthan Laboratories, to nurture innovative small businesses focused on science and technology, thereby promoting economic growth in Illinois and the United States.  America has given so much to me and my family.  Now, in my own modest way, I view it as my mission to give back.

Siva Sivananthan a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor and Director of the Microphysics Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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