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Silicon chip lab expands to nanotechnology research center

STANFORD -- Stanford University's well-known Integrated Circuits Laboratory is joining a network of university labs to be opened nationally to scientists and engineers interested in nanotechnology.

The new National Nanofabrication Users Network is funded by the National Science Foundation and encompasses relevant facilities at Cornell University, Howard University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of California-Santa Barbara, as well as at Stanford's Center for Integrated Systems building on Via Palou.

Cornell and Stanford currently have the largest, most diverse academic laboratories for building nanostructures - devices that can have dimensions as small as a nanometer, a billionth of a meter. (For comparison, a human hair is approximately 100,000 nanometers in diameter.)

UC-Santa Barbara has specialized etching facilities, while Howard and Penn State can handle some novel materials the other labs cannot, said Professor James D. Plummer, who will direct the nanofabrication network at Stanford.

The national network opens up opportunities for students and faculty at other universities, as well as scientists and engineers from industry and national labs, to do research in the lab, Plummer said. Eventually, it will allow them to try out their ideas through electronic communications with laboratory technicians, rather than having to physically travel to the site to conduct their research.

In return, Stanford and the other universities in the network get financial support for operating and upgrading the laboratories, he said, as well as new opportunities for their faculty and students to collaborate with others.

"My students work on new kinds of devices, and to do that, I need the latest and greatest machines, but I can't afford them all by myself," Plummer said. "What's in it for us is a more capable lab and interesting new collaborations with people outside Stanford."

The networked labs at the five universities will receive $3.55 million from the National Science Foundation in fiscal year 1994, with total funds of up to $20 million over five years, the National Science Board decided in November. Because nanomachines and other nanostructures are beginning to attract the interest of researchers in a wide range of fields, three of the foundation's directorates - engineering, mathematical and physical sciences, and biological sciences - are supporting the network.

"We are giving an opportunity to creative people in many fields to do new things, and in a real sense, I think we have no idea what kind of projects are going to come out of the facility here or at the other universities," Plummer said. "I think there will be some new discoveries made, and probably many of the most interesting ones will be made by people who are not electrical engineers."

Center's capabilities have broadened

Built in the 1980s for electrical engineers who wanted to make silicon chips, the Stanford center has much broader capabilities, he said, and already has been used by Stanford faculty or students in physics, chemistry, engineering, biology and medicine. Interested in robots and motors on the scale that can be seen only with a microscope, the mechanical engineering department is hiring two faculty members to specialize in micromechanical structures.

Another current lab user is Gregory Kovacs, an assistant professor of electrical engineering who works on sensors. Kovacs' group uses the lab to build sensor systems that combine detectors on silicon wafers the same way circuits are integrated on computer chips. Used already for a variety of purposes, sensors could ultimately be connected to people, says Kovacs, who also holds a medical degree. "There's no reason why your pacemaker couldn't also measure your blood chemistry," he said.

The network, Plummer said, represents an "expansion of what's been happening internally at Stanford to the national community."

Plenty of room for growth

Silicon computer chip technology will remain a major focus of the lab in the foreseeable future, Plummer said, "but we do not expect significant growth in this area, and the laboratory has never been fully used to its capacity, so there is room for other uses. "

A key to the success of the project, he said, will be making it easier for nonspecialists in semiconductors to use the technology by providing them with electronic access to computer simulations of the laboratory capabilities.

"A lot of the internal research at this lab over the past 10 years has been aimed at developing computer simulation tools. One of the things we will be doing as part of this network is providing tools electronically that correspond to the capabilities of the laboratories," Plummer said. "If a student at XYZ university has an idea for a new widget, he or she will be able to try it out electronically first by using computer simulations at his or her own workstation."

A biologist, for example, might try to simulate a finely patterned grating made on a silicon wafer to be used in cell culture experiments.

Once ready to build the structure for real, Plummer said, the student could go to the laboratory that most suited his or her purposes and take the safety and operational training required to use the laboratory equipment.

Alternatively, he or she could ship the design electronically to technicians on the laboratory staff.

The latter alternative "is not something that is going to happen on a broad scale in the next six months," Plummer said, "but we believe it eventually will make it much easier for people to be creative, especially when they are trying some novel idea in their own discipline that is purely routine in terms of the use of our machines or processes."

There is room for two to three times as many research projects as are currently active in the three-story lab of the Center for Integrated Systems, said Simon Wong, an associate professor of electrical engineering who will be the associate director of the Stanford portion of the nanotechnology network.

"In any given month, there are about 70 Ph.D. students using the laboratory," Wong said, "and twice that number are trained and qualified to use it. It's a big facility for a university, and we want to make the most of it."

The new national network will have a governing board composed of representatives of the five universities involved but also will include representatives of academia in general and of industry and government. An external panel of scientists and engineers recommended the network to expand access to the technology across the United States. Previously, the National Science Foundation funded one national nanofabrication facility at Cornell.



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