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National Science Foundation extends Nano-CEMMS grant, ECE opportunities

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By Bridget Maiellaro, ECE Illinois
July 31, 2008

  • Ilesanmi Adesida, ECE professor and College of Engineering dean, was one of the center’s founders and former associate director.
  • Professor Kent Choquett and his team created an integrated laser detector.
  • Professor Brian Cunning and his team are working to develop a miniature chip that can rapidly perform thousands of biochemical experiments in parallel.

ECE Professor Gary Eden and his team are striving to make light sources at the nanoscale level. Pictured here is a portion of a 512 x 512 fully-addressable microcavity plasma array fabricated in a four-inch diameter silicon wafer. Photo courtesy of Gary Eden.
ECE Professor Gary Eden and his team are striving to make light sources at the nanoscale level. Pictured here is a portion of a 512 x 512 fully-addressable microcavity plasma array fabricated in a four-inch diameter silicon wafer. Photo courtesy of Gary Eden.

The Center for Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems (Nano-CEMMS) recently received a National Science Foundation $12.5 million grant renewal for an additional five years. University of Illinois ECE professors and graduate students play an integral role at the center, which encompasses researchers from various backgrounds, as they work to develop and improve the latest technologies.

“The contributions from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering have been essential,” said Placid Ferreira, director of the center and professor of mechanical science and engineering. “Without having access to the kinds of expertise that the electrical engineering faculty provides, we would have a hard time getting off the ground.”

Electrical engineers have been involved with Nano-CEMMS from its inception. Ilesanmi Adesida, ECE professor and dean of the College of Engineering, was one of the center’s founders and former associate director. Ferreira said that Adesida played an important role in the center’s development by recruiting researchers from throughout the University to write the successful proposal that led to the formation of the center. In addition, Adesida was on the team of researchers that worked on molecular gate technology, one of the most important areas of research for Nano-CEMMS. The team, headed by Mark Shannon, professor of mechanical science and engineering (MechSE), also included chemistry professor Jonathan Sweedler and former University of Illinois professor Paul Bohn , who is now at Notre Dame.

“The team had experts in the areas of fluid mechanics, export mechanics, chemical reactions, and electronics and fabrication,” Ferreira said.” “Basically by exploring transport, chemical reactions, and so forth, in nanoscale confinement, they were able to succeed.”

Over the years, ECE researchers have continued to create and/or improve various technological processes through Nano-CEMMS. Leading the sensors area within the center, ECE Professor Kent D. Choquette research has focused on developing vertical cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs), low power micro-cavity laser sources that can be used for sensing. In turn, the team created an integrated laser detector. The device is similar to a garage door sensor, but includes both a light source and a detector.

Choquette and his team spent about two years building the integrated laser and detector, which are used to find an object’s composition and position.The researchers, including ECE graduate students Matthias Kasten and Joshua Sulkin, are now focused on characterizing it.

“We want to advance the field and applications of micro-cavity lasers, and show how unique the applications are,” Choquette, an executive committee member of Nano-CEMMs, said.

In collaboration with chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Paul Kenis, Choquette’s research team has also developed a new type of semiconductor laser that can be integrated inside microfluidic systems as a way to sense what fluids pass through particular channels.

“We began sticking fluids inside of a laser to see what happens, and it turned into a very interesting device problem,” Choquette said. “What happened was very unexpected. Now, through the grant, we will be able to understand the three Fs: photons, fields, and fluids.”

Aside from his own research projects, Choquette is assisting MehcSE professor John Rogers, who is also affiliated with the Beckman Institute, with the integration of ultrathin light emitting diodes into polymer substrates for flexible lighting and display applications.

ECE Professor Brian T. Cunningham and ECE graduate students Charles Choi and Leo Chan are developing an application for high throughput drug discovery. Their goal is to develop a miniature chip that can rapidly perform thousands of biochemical experiments in parallel, using picoliter-scale volumes of fluid to reduce the time and cost required to discover and test new drug treatments.

In collaboration with chemical engineering professor Paul Kenis and chemistry professor Paul Hergenrother, the team is looking for chemical molecules with the specific ability to control key biochemical pathways that lead to Parkinson’s disease.  The biosensor chip technology is used to search through a large chemical compound “library” for molecules that prevent death of neurons by the mechanism associated with Parkinson’s.

“Since we’ve started, we’ve been able to use sensors for using this high throughput screening. We’ve also recently identified the first inhibitor for apoptosis inducing factor in DNA,” Cunningham said.  The team’s work is to be published in Chemical Biology.

By the end of the summer, the group plans to have 200,000 small molecules screened from the library. Cunningham said that the researchers will then select the ones that are most promising and study them more thoroughly.

ECE Professor J. Gary Eden and his team are striving to make light sources at the nanoscale level. So far, the researchers, including ECE graduate students Kwang Soo Kim, Jekwon Yoon, and Paul Tchertchian, have been able to shrink traditional light sources down to the half the diameter of a piece of hair.

“What makes it exciting is that you can make a light source so small and use the light to trigger a chemical reaction and use that to manufacture something,” Eden said.

By constructing arrays of microscopic light sources on thin, light, and flexible sheets, such as chemically processed pieces of aluminum foil, the team has been able to build a circuitry of electronic wiring within each arrangement. In turn, researchers are able to turn the light sources on and off at high speeds, which is the first step in building microscopic, yet complicated structures.

Eden’s group is currently focused on making the light sources even smaller. While the current diameter of each source is about a thousandth of an inch, the researchers would like to shrink them to a diameter of a fifth of a thousandth of an inch or less.

“I’m very optimistic we’re going to be able to do that, but the smaller we get, the more challenging the process,” Eden said. “I’m hopeful that’ll we’ll have the first demo of one micron or below within the coming year.”

Nano-CEMMS is a collaboration of the University of Illinois, Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology, and North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University. The National Science Foundation began funding to launch the partnership in 2003, as part of its program to create nanoscale science and engineering centers and address research barriers to nanoscale manufacturing, with the funding to be split among the four universities.

“The semiconductor industry has shown us how powerful scaling can be, and we’ve achieved the scaling in a very efficient manner. But they have done so by restricting themselves to a very small set of materials with very specific functionality,” Ferreira said. “Our center really explores other manufacturing techniques that allow us to work with vastly different material sets so that we can integrate many different functions into devices other than logic and switching.”

In addition to conducting cutting-edge research and creating innovative technologies, Nano-CEMMS works to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in science and engineering. Therefore the College of Engineering conducts initiatives aimed at enhancing diversity at all levels of education by providing outreach programs and scholarships, among other things, to high school and college students and faculty members, according to Nano-CEMM’s Web site. Choquette believes the interdisciplinary training and experience is key for those students who want to work in the field.

“The graduate students involved with Nano-CEMMS are working on a project that is bigger than their own personal project,” he said. “In some sense they’re part of something bigger than themselves, which is something very typical when you go into the real world. They are working group-based projects, things that one person can’t do alone. They’re learning it takes a team to do it.”

While electrical engineers have contributed to new technologies within Nano-CEMMS, Ferreira believes that the heterogeneous integration of researchers will bring the center great success.

“Nano-CEMMS has really pulled together an amazingly interdisciplinary team of researchers that is able to span the spectrum from chemistry to electrical engineering to physics to mechanics and so forth,” Ferreira said. “This allows us to address a wide variety of problems… Our collaborative relationship gives us a strong advantage. Besides that, it puts Illinois as one of the leaders in this emerging area of the manufacturing at the nanoscale.”

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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