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In science and mentoring, an image of the future with Philip Bingham

Topics: Clean Energy Sensors and Controls

Philip Bingham has two pieces of advice for researchers new to Oak Ridge National Laboratory:  (1) develop a skill set that can be applied to multiple research areas, and (2) get out and meet folks across the lab. 

“The favorite part of my work is that I’ve done a lot of very different projects. It keeps me interested,” said Bingham, who leads the Imaging, Signals and Machine Learning (ISML) Group at ORNL. “Helping researchers from other science domains realize what they can get out of imaging modes, for instance—I get personally charged up about that.” 

In today’s era of big cross-disciplinary projects, heeding such advice can speed scientific breakthroughs and advance careers, he notes.

Bingham has worked on projects that involve computational imaging, signal processing and data analytics. He came to the lab with a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, with a focus on parallel computing. His first project was to assist with the development of a holographic microscope to inspect semiconductor wafers at high speed as they were being built layer by layer. Bingham primarily focused on developing algorithms to sharpen the holographic images.

He likens the work to “flying over UT’s Neyland [football] Stadium, and someone has drilled holes in the ground a foot in diameter and 3 feet deep at every yard on the football field. What you’re trying to photograph is whether there’s 1 inch of dirt in any of the holes.” That was the level of work needed to identify the infinitesimal defects that can ruin a semiconductor, Bingham added.

The research echoes one area of work for the ISML group today: devising an efficient method to inspect objects as they’re being 3D printed. The group’s scientists are working on such a system with colleagues at the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, a U.S. Department of Energy user facility at ORNL focused on early-stage research in additive manufacturing and composites, reducing technical risk and supporting private investment in new production technologies. The aim is to create a system of sensors and analytics producing “born-qualified” parts that can be installed for direct use just after they roll off the print bed.

Bingham next worked on the development of a new imaging system for neutron research under a DOE Early Career Award. The work essentially involved “coding” the light from a neutron beam to provide better resolution of images. Bingham and colleagues created masks that filter the neutrons in certain ways and then used algorithms to guide image reconstruction so that objects could be analyzed at higher resolution.

Currently Bingham is helping stand up a national security program among five different national laboratories that will apply modern analytics to large data repositories.

Bingham grew up around science and computing. His father was a physics professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who also worked on projects at ORNL. As a kid, Philip was around labs full of the most advanced computers of the time. “The PDP 11 was installed in one of my dad’s labs. It was a huge machine that had all these switches that were fascinating. Today that machine’s capacity might fit on a thumb drive,” Bingham joked. 

“It was very exciting being around that community—going to picnics with these scientist colleagues of my dad’s and getting to know them,” he added. 

Focus on the next generation

When Bingham was entering middle school, the Radio Shack TRS-80 desktop computers came out. “My dad traded the family camper and bought one, and we added on a floppy drive that got us all the way up to 32 KB of memory. That was a huge deal. My brother and I were very excited; we programmed some games and made some databases. It all got me really excited about computers; just growing up in that environment got me motivated” to pursue a career in engineering, he adds. 

After years of applying his own skill set to diverse research project, what drives Bingham today “is helping this new, younger group of scientists develop a capability that will keep going, and to let that capability be known throughout the lab and beyond. I’m worrying more about other people’s futures more than my own nowadays,” he says. In his role as group leader, “I want to be a helping hand to the young scientists coming in—help them grow their own work and form their own relationships.

“The lab does a good job of encouraging collaboration, but it’s still easy to find yourself siloed simply because you’re so focused on your own work,” Bingham said. “But this is exactly where the national labs can have a really big impact, by bringing this multidisciplinary effort to science and technology challenges.”

Outside the lab, Bingham stays busy with his family and community. He enjoys watching his younger son, a senior in high school, play in regional soccer tournaments and participate in FIRST Robotics. His older son is a graduate student at UT who switched from nuclear engineering to biomedical engineering partly because of an interest in nuclear imaging—a chip off the block, as it were.

Bingham recently traveled with his church to Puerto Rico to help with recovery efforts from last year’s hurricanes; the group mostly worked on re-roofing homes. “This vacation was full of hard work,  but I found that being busy doing something for someone else was a great way to relax the mind and not focus on myself,” said Bingham, who also teaches second graders at his church.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit