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Purdue To Head NASA Nanoelectronics Institute
Jul 2002
LAFAYETTE, Ind., July 11 -- Purdue University will lead a new institute for nanoelectronics and computing, a group of six universities that will develop high-performance technologies for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The institute is one of seven new University Research, Engineering and Technology Institutes created by NASA and the US Department of Defense.

Much of the work will be driven by NASA's need to develop more autonomous spacecraft, which will require compact, powerful computers, said Supriyo Datta, a Purdue professor of electrical and computer engineering who will be director of the institute.

Purdue will work with researchers at Northwestern, Cornell and Yale universities, the University of Florida and the University of California at San Diego. NASA announced plans to establish the institute on June 12. New technologies will be needed for industry to keep pace with Moore's Law, an unofficial rule stating that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles about every 18 months, resulting in rapid progress in computers and telecommunications. Doubling the number of devices that can fit on a computer chip translates into a similar increase in performance. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to continue shrinking electronic devices made of conventional silicon-based semiconductors.

"Within a decade or so, silicon transistor dimensions will have been scaled to their limit," said Mark Lundstrom, a Purdue professor of electrical and computer engineering whose work includes research in nanotechnology.

NASA will provide about $3 million annually, possibly over 10 years, for the center. Purdue plans to provide additional money for research, educational equipment and to support students who participate, but specific funding details will not be available until later this summer.

The institute will be a multidisciplinary effort involving researchers from fields including chemistry, materials science, physics, electrical engineering, pharmacy, chemical engineering and biomedical engineering. Researchers in the institute will take advantage of facilities in the new Birck Nanotechnology Center, scheduled for completion in early 2005, and the institute will move into the Birck center after its completion.

The Birck center will contain laboratories designed specifically for research in nanotechnology, an emerging science in which new materials and tiny structures are built atom-by-atom, or molecule-by-molecule. "Nano" is a prefix meaning one-billionth, so a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or roughly 10 atoms wide.

Nanotechnology is expected to produce innovations in a wide variety of materials, devices and sensors. Within the context of the NASA center, potential innovations include the following:

The development of "molecular electronics," or circuitry using organic or biological molecules as active components. This development could complement silicon technology by providing new types of "ultradense molecular memory," which could make possible electronic systems able to adapt and evolve to new conditions on deep-space missions. The research could lead to innovative kinds of computer data-storage and image-processing devices.

The advent of new types of structures and devices that "self assemble," similar to the growth of organic structures in living organisms. In this case, devices would eventually be fabricated using techniques based on chemical attractions, rather than the complex processes now used to etch electronic circuits. While producing smaller and smaller silicon devices will increase manufacturing costs, self assembly would make electronics processing far less expensive than the future, projected costs of conventional processing.

A technology in which biology and electronics are merged, creating "chemical-biological chips" that instantly detect food-borne contamination, dangerous substances in the blood or chemical warfare agents in the air. The chips also could be used to search for life during NASA space missions.

The Birck Nanotechnology Center is one of four major centers currently planned for Purdue's $100 million Discovery Park, a complex of facilities that will use a multidisciplinary approach to develop new technologies. The other centers are a biosciences-engineering facility, the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship and an "e-enterprises" center.

The nanoelectronics and computer institute's multidisciplinary nature fits perfectly with Discovery Park's mission to transcend traditional barriers between scientific disciplines, said James Cooper, co-director of the Birck center and a professor of electrical and computer engineering.

"One of our main goals is to break down the academic silos," Cooper said. Labs in the nanotechnology center will be designed specifically to accommodate researchers from distinctly different fields.

Nanotechnology requires specialized laboratory facilities for research and development. Among those specialized facilities are state-of-the-art "clean rooms," or labs in which the air is constantly filtered to remove minute dust particles. The center's laboratories will house high-tech instruments such as atomic-force microscopes, which use a tiny probe that can actually touch and detect individual atoms; molecular beam epitaxy equipment to build new semiconductor crystals, atom-by-atom, for advanced computers and electronics; and chemical vapor deposition machines, which allow extremely precise, layer-by-layer construction of entirely new materials that never existed in nature.

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