Researchers receive NSF nanoscale science grants

by William G. Gilroy

Two teams of University of Notre Dame researchers have been awarded Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team (NIRT) grants totaling almost $3 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF).p. The goal of the NIRT program is to encourage synergistic science and engineering research in emerging areas of nanoscale science and technology. The award process was extremely competitive with only 8 percent of submitted proposals receiving NSF funding.p. Nanoscience and nanoengineering involve the study of small devices and device-related phenomena on a spatial scale of less than one-tenth of a micron, that is, one thousandth the diameter of a human hair or roughly the diameter of a DNA molecule. Nanotechnology impacts virtually all science and engineering disciplines from semiconductors to biology to medicine.p. Boldizsar Janko, assistant professor of physics, and his team received $1.8 million to support research on the development and creation of man-made materials aimed at performing extremely fast functions in computers of future generations. His group includes Malgorzata Dobrowolska-Furdyna, professor of physics, and Jacek Furdyna, the Aurora and Thomas Marquez Professor of Information Theory and Computer Technology.p. The materials, known as diluted magnetic semiconductors, possess magnetic, optical and semiconductor properties that show great promise for new types of computers. The research is aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of these properties, so as to enable their control for the purpose of such applications as “spintronics,” which involves electronic circuits based on electronic spin as well as electron charge.p. The Janko team also is collaborating with researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory, Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.p. Peter M. Kogge, Ted H. McCourtney Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, and his team received a $1 million grant to explore the design of computers using alternative technologies such as Quantum Cellular Automata (QCA). His team includes Alexi Orlov, associate professor of electrical engineering; Craig Lent, professor of electrical engineering; Gregory Snider, associate professor of electrical engineering; and Patrick Fay, assistant professor of electrical engineering.p. Conventional microelectronic technology has relied on shrinking transistors to produce increasingly smaller, faster and more powerful computers. However, because the laws of physics prevent conventional devices from working below a certain size, that method is nearing its physical limits.p. QCA leapfrogs that barrier with an entity known as a “quantum dot,” a tiny structure in which an electron can be confined. These quantum dots can be created and arranged into cells though microelectronic techniques, and in turn, these cells can be lined up end to end to form “binary wires” or arrayed to form switches and various computer logic devices.p. If successful, a future one-centimeter square QCA chip could contain as many as 1 trillion devices, as opposed to the 6 million devices in the most advanced conventional chip. And since it does not rely on flowing electrons to transmit a signal, no electric current is produced and heat problems are avoided.p.

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