Lyding wins AVS achievement award

ECE News

Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS
10/31/2014

Story Highlights

  • Professor Joseph Lyding has won the 2014 Award for Outstanding Research from the Prairie Chapter of the American Vacuum Society.
  • He's won for "for pioneering developments in scanning tunneling microscopy instrumentation and their applications to nanotechnology."
  • The award recognizes Lyding's work creating a new kind of scanning tunnel microscope.

Professor Joseph W Lyding has won the 2014 Award for Outstanding Research from the Prairie Chapter of the American Vacuum Society “For pioneering developments in scanning tunneling microscopy instrumentation and their applications to nanotechnology.”

Joseph W. Lyding
Joseph W. Lyding

“The award is basically a recognition of my contributions to the field,” Lyding said. “When I first joined Illinois, I came up with a new kind of STM. My work into scanning tunnel microscopy has formed the basis for the research that many groups, including my own, now engage in, and this award is a recognition of all of that groundwork I laid.”

Lyding joined Illinois as an assistant visiting professor in the 1980s, the early days of nanotechnology development and scanning tunnel microscopy. At his first conference he attended a talk given by the inventors of scanning tunnel microscopes: devices that allowed users to visualize surfaces at the atomic scale.

These devices used an atomically sharp point to probe surfaces and give scientists visualizations of areas smaller than they had ever seen before. Lyding was instantly captivated. He decided to radically depart from the research that he had been hired by the university to pursue, and instead build a scanning tunnel microscope of his own.

 “At the time, you couldn’t buy STMs. If you wanted one, you built it on your own,” Lyding said. “I knew virtually nothing about how to build these machines, but I figured, after doing a lot of research, I’d give it a shot and see how far I got.” 

Lyding set to work requisitioning parts and cobbling them together. He’d work in the ECE Student Machine Shop until 2 a.m. nearly every day, building and rebuilding his creation. Because he had no designs to build the device from, he’d frequently construct the machine, tear it down, and rebuild it differently on a daily basis. What kept Lyding going: he realized he could eventually come up with a solution to every problem he encountered. 

“Surprisingly, at first I thought I’d pick this project up and see how much I could get done, but I just kept going and never ran into a roadblock,” Lyding said. “The parts weren’t expensive, so I didn’t even need to request funding, and the electronics were relatively simple. The only challenge was the complexity of all the assembled parts.”

Of course, faculty members started to notice the new recruit staying in the machine shop past midnight on a regular basis, feverishly at work on a project clothed in mystery. Questions started to circulate, and when they reached Lyding, he responded frankly. Some thought he had lost his mind while others were highly intrigued. Bardeen, who’d hired Lyding, was suspicious but decided to wait patiently while Lyding worked. 

Lyding's first scanning tunneling microscope.
Lyding's first scanning tunneling microscope.

“If I failed after a year’s work, Bardeen would probably have been the first to dismiss me for wasting a year of his time,” Lyding said. “Thankfully, and luckily for me, he stayed patient and waited to see how it would turn out.”

After months of hacking at scrap metal and redesigning his work more times than he could count, Lyding had finished a working device: a 12-foot-tall behemoth of sheet metal, glass, and steel. Booting it up, he switched on the juice and turned around to behold his entire creation crumbling before him. 

The machine’s spectacular failure was the low point in its design for Lyding. He took a few days off from this obsessive project to contemplate just how much farther he was willing to take it, and whether it would be best to cut his losses and turn back to the research he was actually hired to do. 

“Seeing everything fall apart was probably the hardest part of the project for me,” Lyding said. “I slept on it for a couple of days, debating whether to keep going or no. Finally I sat down and came up with a few ideas to fix it, built a mockup, and it worked, so I kept right on going.”

Eventually, by finding ways to eliminate redundant parts, Lyding was able to not just get the machine working, but also shrink his 12-foot-tall beast into a device the size of his thumb.  

Normal scanning tunnel microscopes are usually located in basement labs of university buildings, because their size and huge sensitivity to vibrations combine to make them touchy. Amazingly, Lyding’s device, small enough to fit in a pocket, is able to take readings that are just as good as other teams’ giant microscopes. His machines can do their jobs not just in a vibration-free basement, but also while compensating for all of the vibrations that occur on the third floor of his Beckman Institute laboratory. 

Joseph Lyding (center) with graduate students (from left to right) Steve Skala, Jerome Hubacek and Gordon Gammie, presenting the scaled-down version of his scanning tunneling microscope.
Joseph Lyding (center) with graduate students (from left to right) Steve Skala, Jerome Hubacek and Gordon Gammie, presenting the scaled-down version of his scanning tunneling microscope.

After throwing his job on the line and building a device that not only worked perfectly but radically improved on previous devices, Lyding is known even today for his contributions to the field of scanning tunnel microscopy, for which he has won the AVS achievement award. 

Ideas for the machine, Lyding noted, could hit him at any time throughout the day, and whenever another flash of inspiration struck him, he’d implement it immediately. 

“I was mowing my lawn one day and it just hit me that I could dramatically shrink my machine, combining several parts by taking advantage of how well they naturally work to stabilize each other,” Lyding said. “I hurried up, finished mowing the lawn, and ran to the machine shop to get cracking on my latest idea.”

Lyding’s gamble eventually paid off, as he is now recognized by societies both national and worldwide for his research as a pioneer in the fields of nanoscience and semiconductor technology. Since his first breakthrough achievement, Lyding has gone on to continually revolutionize electrical engineering, for example, by developing a new method to extend electronics chips’ lifetimes by more than a factor of 10, called deuterium passivation. The technology now licensed by the University of Illinois and used in current production by major chipmakers. 

Lyding’s former student Nathan Guisinger, now assistant scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, has a tremendous amount of respect for Lyding and spoke to his achievements. 

“Joe Lyding is one of the first pioneers and continues to be a world-renowned leader in the field of scanning tunneling microscopy,” Guisinger said.

Apart from an exceptional research career, Guisinger noted that Lyding was also very helpful as a professor and group leader. 

“Besides his outstanding research, Joe is a tremendous presence in the laboratory and classroom,” Guisinger said. “Someone as innovative as Joe could have long ago created an army of graduate students and postdocs for his research. However, to manage a huge group requires endless paperwork, grant writing, and other duties, and Joe has always kept the size of his group at a level in which he could actively be in the lab participating and interacting with his students.”

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