February 14, 2008 — "There's room at the top," said Avik Ghosh, assistant professor in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, when asked to summarize the research that garnered him and his team a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award in January 2008.
While he's playing off the words in the title of Richard P. Feynman's famous nano lecture, "There's plenty of room at the bottom," Ghosh is serious about the "top," or surface of transistors — devices that regulate current and act as a switch for electronic signals and can be found in almost all electronic devices, including computer chips. Ghosh and his team are investigating how to make transistors faster and more reliable by understanding how elements at the nanoscale and microscale interact. The NSF award will fund his proposal, "Understanding Electron Dynamics at the Nano-Micro Interface," with $400,000 distributed over five years.
According to Ghosh, any number of random components can be found on the surface of transistors. "These random impurities take up valuable space, space that could be used for faster computations," he said. The impurities are "byproducts of the transistor fabrication process, which leads to defects, traps and broken bonds. Key processes that the transistor performs get hampered by random scattering from these impurities. Many in our field are trying to eliminate these byproducts. Our research group is approaching it a bit differently — we are trying to engineer these nano-sized impurities to introduce some control and give them a purpose."
Ghosh's group is doing this through modeling, simulation and experimental collaborations. Drawing on expertise from professors in U.Va.'s electrical engineering, chemistry and physics departments, Ghosh's team is designing organic molecules to introduce to the transistor's surface. Based on the properties of the molecules, the team can determine how the additions will change the properties of the transistor. Their goal? To introduce molecules to the surface of the transistor that will treat or coat the random impurities and prevent random scattering when essential transistor functions are performed.
"This would provide a more cost-effective solution than trying to eliminate the byproducts because, instead of redesigning the transistor, we are working within the existing architecture of today's transistors," says Ghosh.
A transistor built without random surface scattering events results in a well-behaved transistor — one that will last longer and is more reliable, faster and cheaper, Ghosh said.
"By investigating the possibilities of controlling the transistor's super-structure, Ghosh's team is conducting research that will affect the microelectronic devices of today and tomorrow," said James H. Aylor, dean of U.Va.'s Engineering School. "The applications of this research could result in smaller, faster and cheaper computer chips, better and more reliable sensors, high-density memory arrays and efficient heat sinks for power dissipated in electronic components."
The Faculty Early Career Development award is one of the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of the early career development of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education.
Outreach is an essential component of winning proposals. Ghosh's team plans to create educational tools that combine animated PowerPoint lectures with voice-overs that will be designed for a broad audience — from the novice to the expert. These lectures, which teach various topics in nanoscience, will be deployed on various Web sites. Further, the team plans to partner with the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Va., to develop traveling demonstrations aimed at demystifying nanoscience and making it more accessible to middle school and high school students.
About the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science
Founded in 1836, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science combines research and educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Within the undergraduate programs, courses in engineering, ethics, mathematics, the sciences and the humanities are available to build a strong foundation for careers in engineering and other professions. Its abundant research opportunities complement the curriculum and educate young men and women to become thoughtful leaders in technology and society. At the graduate level, the Engineering School collaborates with the University's highly ranked medical and business schools on interdisciplinary research projects and entrepreneurial initiatives. With a distinguished faculty and a student body of 2,000 undergraduates and 650 graduate students, the Engineering School offers an array of disciplines, including cutting-edge research programs in computer and information science and engineering, bioengineering and nanotechnology. For information, visit www.seas.virginia.edu.