Eric Pop receives Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award

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By Charlie Johnson, ECE ILLINOIS
May 12, 2010

  • ECE Assistant Professor Eric Pop was recently named a recipient of a Office of Naval Research's Young Investigator Award.
  • Pop will receive a three year, $510,000 research grant to put towards his project, "Reprogrammable Carbon Electronics."
  • The project is aimed at developing reprogrammable, low-power nanoelectronics that have a range of Naval and civilian applications.

Eric  Pop
Eric Pop

ECE Assistant Professor Eric Pop was recently named a recipient of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Award. Pop was selected as one of 17 to win the award from a pool of 211 applicants nationwide. To be eligible, candidates must be untenured assistant professors who obtained a doctorate or equivalent degree within the past five years and “show exceptional promise for conducting innovative research.”

“It’s a very nice award for my group, and it’s definitely a big honor,” said Pop.

Along with the distinction, Pop will receive a three-year, $510,000 research grant to put towards his project, “Reprogrammable Carbon Electronics.” The research will be aimed at developing reprogrammable, low-power memory and circuits that have a range of Naval and civilian applications. As technology begins to reach the limits of what silicon electronics are capable of, Pop is studying the potential for expanding the field with low-power carbon electronics and phase-change materials.

The approaching limits of conventional technology can be seen in everyday items such as laptops or cell phones. As technology has improved over the years, these devices have gradually become smaller. In recent years, however, the size of many cell phones has swollen to accommodate technology that allows users to surf the Web and shoot video. Much of the increase in size is due to larger batteries needed to power these new "smart' phones, and not necessarily due to the increase in the computing power of the phone itself.

Research in carbon electronics is still very much in its infancy, according to Pop. This is due partially to the fact that the technology of carbon electronics is relatively new and partially to the fact that silicon electronics have been so effective over the past decades. It is only because silicon electronics are now approaching their natural atomic limits that scientists are beginning to look elsewhere.

“Carbon electronics offer a viable challenge to silicon because they have better electrical and thermal properties, but there is a lot more infrastructure and know-how in silicon today. Nevertheless, this is exactly why such new fields are perfect for academic exploration,” said Pop.

In order to make carbon electronics as fast and cost effective as silicon, Pop’s research team is looking to complement them with phase change materials. Whereas silicon circuits are based on holding a charge to store data, phase change materials store data by changing their state from amorphous to crystalline. Because these materials do not need to hold an electric charge, they don’t leak power when not in use.

Phase change materials are already in use in some applications, such as on rewritable DVDs, but there are many challenges that lie ahead for Pop and his group. How to fabricate carbon electronics, how to keep the cost low, and how to match silicon electronics in terms of speed are several examples of the questions Pop will try to answer.

The potential result are devices and circuits that are one hundred times more power efficient than similar ones based on silicon technology.

Imagine only having to charge your cell phone once every six months. Or having 12 weeks of battery power on your laptop computer.

“There’s a huge gap between where we are now with carbon electronics and phase change materials and where we are with silicon,” said Pop. “At the same time, I am not trying to downplay silicon. Silicon has done an incredible job powering many aspects of our lives for the last 50 years. But there are definitely new things out there to explore.”

Hopefully, the future of exploration in carbon electronics will continue at ECE ILLINOIS. The preliminary results that Pop submitted in his proposal for the Young Investigator Award were all collected at Illinois by Pop and ECE graduate students. And thanks to the ONR, this research will expand over the next three years for Pop and his team.

“This is, in every sense, a homegrown project,” said Pop. It’s been developed and researched here by ECE students working with me, and I am proud to say that the award will continue to fund more graduate students and postdocs in our Department.”

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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