A Big Moment for Tiny Tech
Spring 2018 | You have to think small to do the kind of work now underway in the University of Delaware’s new Nanofabrication Facility (UDNF).
But you have to think big, too, because what happens in the UDNF “clean room” – more on that later – won’t stay in the clean room. It will ship out to the wide world of biology, chemistry, engineering, electronics, health care, manufacturing, energy, physics, and who-knows-where-else.
UD officials, faculty, staff and students marked the opening of the $30 million “machine shop of the 21st century” with a keynote address by nanotechnology pioneer Harold Craighead of Cornell University and a ceremonial ribbon-cutting in a packed hallway on the first floor of the Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory.
The facility is equipped to produce devices that cannot be seen by the naked eye – materials that can be used in a wide array of applications from medicine to environmental sciences to solar energy harvesting. The equipment in the laboratory will allow researchers to make devices as small as 10 nanometers.
“This is a state-of-the-art facility that will allow faculty, staff, students, and collaborators from across campus and beyond to envision research at its smallest scale,” said Charlie Riordan, deputy provost for research and scholarship. “There are tremendous opportunities to develop technologies at the atomic level. And we are very well poised for all disciplines to leverage this technology to address the grand challenges we face in society.”
The facility was years in the planning and now is in the hands of co-directors Matthew Doty, associate professor of materials science and engineering, physics, and electrical and computer engineering, and John Xiao, Unidel Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Xiao specializes in spintronics, nanofabrication and magnetic materials. Doty studies and develops nanostructured semiconductors.
Entry to the 8,500-square-foot clean room, where all the work is done, requires training, credentials, painstaking protocols and coverage from the “gowning room” – including hair nets, face and head covers, jumpsuits, gloves, booties, safety glasses and hard hats.
The “clean” referenced here isn’t the white-glove kind of clean. It’s far to the extreme of that. The clean room is rated for two layers of clean – one is Class 100, which means that it has no more than 100 particles measuring 500 nanometers or more in a cubic foot of air, and the other is Class 1,000, which means it has no more than 1,000 such particles per cubic foot.
For reference, an ordinary room would register about 100,000 particles per cubic foot.
To keep the air this clean, the air in the room is constantly pushed through filters, changing the air up to 300 times an hour.
Such hyper-clean conditions are mandatory because work at nanometer length scales can be sabotaged by unwanted particles. Without such measures, Xiao said, it would be like trying to frost a wedding cake while someone is throwing basketballs at you.
The clean room has four separate bays for processes including lithography, deposition of thin films, etching, and thermal processing. “We’re getting the tools up and running and they’re helping us qualify the tools,” said Scott McCracken, facility specialist. “They’re starting to do some work as well, starting some of their own projects.”
The nanofabrication technology makes the University more appealing to students and faculty with such interests, and George Watson, physicist and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said he is taking the opportunity to recruit new faculty.
“This is opening up new opportunities,” he said.
Ira Winston, chief infrastructure officer at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, saluted UD’s accomplishment and that of his former colleague, Iulian Codreanu, who is now operations director of UDNF.
“We thought we built the premiere facility,” Winston said. “But they [UD] made some choices we didn’t make. They have some things we don’t. So I know some of our users will be coming here. Collaboration is going to happen. We have some things they don’t and they have some things we don’t.”
Industry leaders have shown significant interest in the University’s new capacity, too. It’s expensive equipment – the electron beam lithography setup alone cost about $3 million. Jim Sharp, president of Carl Zeiss Microscopy, attended the ribbon cutting when the UDNF opened. The facility has several Zeiss instruments in it.
“The future of science is in the fab,” Sharp said. “The science will go there.”
It is because of nanoscale technology that sophisticated computing can be done on devices the size of a wristwatch or cell phone rather than the massive machines that once required entire rooms to do the work of a glorified calculator.
And now, UD’s tiny tech machine shop is poised to deliver extraordinary new possibilities.