University of North
Texas has taken a big step into the tiny realm of nanotechnology
of materials at atomic and molecular levels. With the opening this year
of the new Laboratory for Electronic Materials and Devices, UNT becomes
a major player in the increasingly important area of electronic materials.
The 2,300-square-foot laboratory
located in the basement of the Engineering Technology Building
will support both
basic and applied research on new materials used in electronic devices
of all kinds. The U.S. Department of Commerce has identified advanced
materials as one of five emerging technologies the United States must
master to remain competitive in the world marketplace.
The laboratory was conceived as a cross-disciplinary
research center engaging faculty and students from the chemistry, physics,
biological sciences and engineering technology departments, as well as
UNT's materials science department.
The core of the new laboratory's instrumentation was donated to UNT by
Texas Instruments. Although the research equipment was associated with
three separate laboratories at TI, faculty members in the UNT Department
of Materials Science saw the potential value of combining the three components
into a single comprehensive research tool that would enable them to create
new materials for use in a wide range of advanced electronic applications.
The result is a laboratory with capabilities unique
among academic materials science laboratories in the United States and
available in only a few such laboratories in the world.
"This lab represents an important expansion in the
sciences at UNT," says Bruce Gnade, professor and chair of the Department
of Materials Science. The creation of the laboratory, he says, provides
a boost to the materials science program and to the university's growing
reputation as a research center.
initial research programs in the new lab will focus on the field of advanced
dielectric (insulating) materials. These materials, made up of compounds
of silicon, germanium or a combination of the two, are considered essential
to progress in the continuing miniaturization of integrated circuits.
Research at the lab will focus on the physics and chemistry of advanced
electronic materials required for microprocessors used in computers, telecommunications
and electronically based information systems of the future.
"This is the area of research with the highest activity,"
says Robert M. Wallace, director of the laboratory and professor of materials
science. "It's where industry is putting most of its materials research
money, and it's the area in which industry expects the most results from
the research community."
One of the unique characteristics of the laboratory
is that the three principal components the
Molecular Beam Epitaxy System, the Surface Science System and the Ion
Beam Accelerator System are
coupled to provide a continuous vacuum in which to transport samples.
idea is to be able to grow a film on a silicon wafer, move it throughout
the systems and analyze it without ever taking it out and exposing it
to the air," explains Wallace. A film is a very thin layer of material
a tiny fraction
of the thickness of a human hair.
each operation is performed in an ultrahigh vacuum environment, an electronic
device or component may be synthesized, modified and characterized in
a continuous process.
"If the film is exposed to the air," he says, "it becomes
contaminated. It's no longer what we intended it to be."
The vacuum in the system is 10-10 Torr, which corresponds
to the vacuum in space at an altitude of about 30 miles above the Earth's
"We'll be able to 'grow' materials one layer of atoms
at a time," says Gnade. "The actual materials may be no more than 10 atomic
layers thick. We want to control the process at the atomic level. Making
devices smaller and building them atom by atom
this system is designed to do."
says Wallace, the research team will be trying to understand how these
films grow and how to control their growth in a reproducible way.
in the MBE System that the thin films will be deposited on a silicon or
germanium wafer. Three independent deposition chambers are connected by
a transport system that allows the wafer to move through the process in
a continuous vacuum. The three different chambers are used to deposit
semiconductors, metals and dielectrics. The MBE is coupled to the Ion
Beam Accelerator System and the Surface Science System, both of which
are used to evaluate the structures created in the MBE System.
The second component
the Surface Science
will analyze, or "characterize," the surface of materials chemically and
physically to determine their suitability for electronic applications.
Examining the materials
using X-ray photoelectron, Auger electron and ultraviolet photoelectron
spectroscopies, the SSS will dissect the surface atom by atom.
The 20-foot-long, seven-ton Ion Beam Accelerator System is a particle
accelerator that can analyze the atomic makeup of electronic materials
by bombarding them with a particle beam, then detecting the resulting
scattered particles, X-rays and events that are characteristic of each
An instrument known as a Variable Temperature Scanning
Tunneling Microscope, located in the laboratory on a specially designed
vibration-isolation floor, will also be used to analyze materials. It
has a spatial resolution of better than one atom at temperatures approaching
of the laboratory got under way in the late summer of 1999 and was completed
by April of this year. The lab's research apparatus is being commissioned
in stages, Wallace says. The Surface Science System was already taking
data in July. The MBE went online in the fall, and the Ion Beam Accelerator
System should be up and running by the end of the year.
Both Gnade and Wallace worked with the equipment at
TI before they came to UNT.
"The lab was designed from our experience of how an
industrial laboratory works," Wallace explains.
He says that design of the lab infrastructure allows
for changes in research direction.
"As our funding changes, as we change research interests,
we can add or decommission equipment and keep right on going."
Wallace and Gnade have secured approximately $2 million
in research funding from an array of federal, state and industry sources.
The university has invested $700,000 for construction of the lab, and
the contribution from Texas Instruments in excess of $3 million includes
the apparatus as well as supplies, spare parts and a portion of the lab's
The laboratory will also be involved in at least two
more areas of research in the near future. Researchers will study devices
based on field emission arrays, which have a variety of potential applications
including high-power amplifiers, spacecraft propulsion for very long missions,
improved flat-panel displays for televisions and computer screens, and
decontamination of air contaminated by chemical or biological warfare
agents. A key area of research for these devices is improving the basic
understanding of long-term reliability and stability of performance over
The other initiative involves molecular electronic
devices, which use biological principles to construct electronic circuits.
Researchers will explore the possibility of using single molecules or
assemblies of molecules to perform traditional electronic functions.
Industrial researchers, Wallace points out, don't always
have the time to determine why processes in the field of materials science
work as they do.
"That's why they're interested in funding academic
research," he says. "That's the missing link. That's the kind of problem
that fits in a university environment."
new Laboratory for Electronic Materials and Devices owes its existence
to a major donation by Texas Instruments. The Dallas-based company
reorganized its internal research and development effort in 1998,
and the apparatus that it no longer needed is now the core of the
new UNT facility.
Valued at $3.5 million, it's part
of a total package of $6 million of equipment designated by TI for
member institutions of the Metroplex Research Consortium for Electronic
Devices and Materials. The organization, which includes UNT as well
as Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University and
the University of Texas at Arlington, was formed to advance the
study of electronic devices and materials at member schools. An
estimated 4,500 students at the four universities are majoring in
areas relevant to the aims of the consortium.
"The gift shows confidence in
the university and in the research we'll be able to do," says
Bruce Gnade, professor and chair of the UNT Department of Materials
Science. Such confidence, he says, can only enhance the university's
reputation in the field of materials science. This, in turn, could
lead to broader interest in UNT's program by other leaders in the
It's a gift that will keep on giving
to the donor as well as to the recipient. Robert Wallace, professor
of materials science and director of the new laboratory, points
out that the research conducted there "will be in the electronic
world where TI does business."
Also, the proximity of UNT to TI
headquarters means greater interaction and exchange between university
researchers and the company.
"It's much easier for TI to
collaborate with a local university laboratory than with a university
far removed," Wallace says.
But perhaps the greatest benefit
to TI will be the UNT graduates, whom Wallace calls "an educated
work force tailored to TI's needs." Again, because of the closeness
of the two institutions, TI can recruit new employees right in its
own backyard, he says.
Wallace's observations echo the sentiments
of Thomas J. Engibous, TI chair, president and CEO. "This donation
will provide needed tools to the local universities for long-term
research in areas that are important to TI's future," he said
when the company announced the gift in October 1998. "There
are clear benefits to Texas Instruments of having strong university
research programs in the region. They are valuable partners in joint
research developments with TI and enhance our ability to recruit
the top technical graduates."
Obviously, the ability of UNT graduates
to secure good jobs will also be enhanced, says Rollie Schafer,
UNT's vice provost for research and professor of biological sciences.
"Thanks to TI, undergraduate and graduate students at UNT will
benefit from direct participation in cutting-edge research and interactions
with industry," he says. The result will be an annual group
of graduates in high demand in the high-tech world.