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NEW TEAM TACKLES NANOTECHNOLOGY AT ODU APPLIED RESEARCH CENTER

Hani E. Elsayed-Ali had his work cut out for him when he was appointed last fall as director of the Old Dominion University research unit at the Applied Research Center in Newport News. He had to tackle some of the thorniest challenges of modern technology, and do it together with two chief colleagues who were brand new to the ODU faculty.

The difficulty of the ARC-ODU mission reflects a fundamental hurdle for engineers and scientists who are involved in cutting-edge work at or near the nanoscale, which ranges from 1-100 billionths of a meter.

Dots, tubes, particles, thin films and surface features created by the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules may bring great improvements to human life during the next few decades. Nanotechnology could revolutionize electronics, medical probes and therapies, construction materials, chemical sensors and many other products. But the same quirky chemistry and physics that allow breakthroughs at the nanoscale also make nanotechnology difficult to harness.

That is where ARC comes in. One of its most important missions is to push thin films and nanotechnology from the rarified air of laboratories into the everyday marketplace.

"I think we have put together a good team to do what we want to do," said Elsayed-Ali, who joined the Old Dominion faculty in 1992 and is eminent scholar and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Elsayed-Ali specializes in physical electronics and is widely known for his proficiency with the ultrafast electron diffraction and pulsed laser deposition that allow researchers to probe nanoscale phenomena and fabricate quantum dots and nanoparticles. His chief colleagues at ARC, both of whom joined the ODU faculty last year, are Helmut Baumgart, who accepted a chaired professorship in electrical engineering after a quarter-century of award-winning research in the advanced semi-conductor industry, and Abdelmageed Elmustafa, assistant professor of mechanical engineering as well as a visiting research professor at Princeton University.

ARC, which was created nearly a decade ago, is located in an $18 million, 122,000 square-foot building near the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. A collaborative enterprise of ODU, the College of William and Mary, Christopher Newport University, Norfolk State University and the Jefferson Lab, ARC also provides space in its building for business start-ups, a venture capital firm, visiting researchers and support entities such as the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, the Hampton Roads Technology Council and the Technology Applications Center.

The overall goal of ARC is to promote innovative, high-tech solutions for private industries and help stimulate the Hampton Roads and Virginia economies.
"We want to impact the economic development of our region by leveraging our partnerships with the City of Newport News and Jefferson Lab," said Oktay Baysal, dean of the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, which administers ARC-ODU.

The dean said the strength of the current ARC-ODU team reflects a "bolstered commitment to our technological competitiveness." Elsayed-Ali's scholarship has garnered praise from a Nobel Laureate and National Academy of Science member, among other, Baysal pointed out. "His technical papers are judged to be pioneering."

Baumgart was recruited for an endowed professorship established by the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium because of his "vast industrial research experience," Baysal said, and Elmustafa's expertise has "positioned ODU to push the forefront of material science."

Although Elsayed-Ali, Baumgart and Elmustafa are the only ODU professors who spend a significant amount of their workweek at ARC, other of the university's faculty, scientists and engineers can drive the 20 miles from campus to use the center's laboratories and sophisticated equipment. ARC instruments include an array of lasers, high-powered microscopes and spectrometers, devices that fabricate, process and analyze materials.

The pulsed laser deposition (PLD) device, an octopus-shaped contraption of metal chamber and pipes, is a favorite tool of Elsayed-Ali's at present. "We are building a strong group in the area of nanofabrication," he said. "This is where we excel, in fabricating different kinds of quantum dots and nanoparticles, and creating nanofeatures on surfaces."

In the PLD, lasers are used to blast pieces of solid material inside a vacuum chamber, turning each solid into highly excited soups called plasmas. As plasma escapes the blast zone, it cools to a gas and hits a clean substrate where it condenses and sticks, forming a very thin layer. By alternating laser blasts, various materials can be layered on the substrate in a precise fashion to build and position nanoscale pimples. These so-called quantum dots can be created to emit specific colors under certain physical conditions or form the tiniest of electrical circuits. Imagine quantum dots that can be programmed to detect chemical compounds, electromagnetic radiation, or to form a powerful microprocessor no bigger than a pinhead.

Baumgart, whose doctorate from the University of Stuttgart is in semiconductor physics, worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories, Royal Philips Electronics, IBM, Motorola and Infineon Technologies before pursuing his longstanding dream to become an academician. He won performance and leadership awards from each of his employers and participated during his industry career in the explosive growth of microelectronics. He finds it appropriate now that he is at a university helping a new generation of scientists and engineers prepare for the "paradigm shift that is necessary in microelectronics."

His research outlook is heavily influenced by his years in private industry. "We should not delude ourselves-industry does not need academic research in order to survive," he said. "But there are gaps to be filled in what industry can accomplish, and academic partners can fill those gaps."

Baumgart teaches a course in the science and engineering of microelectronic fabrication and lists nanotechnology as one of his major research interests at ARC. He also takes his students on field trips to his former employer, Infineon in Richmond. "I think the students see that my real-world experience and connections are valuable," he said.

Elmustafa received his doctorate in materials science and engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 2000 and already has put together an impressive work resume. His focus on the nanoscale mechanical behavior of materials has led to his participation in projects for a technology company in Madison, Wis., and for NASA.

He is an exuberant proponent of ODU and ARC, and can deliver a long list of aspirations off the top of his head. A material in bulk and the same material at the nanoscale can exhibit very different mechanical properties, so Elmustafa believes his special mechanical engineering background will be valuable to an ARC-ODU team that is promoting commercial applications of nanotechnology. For example, he has developed computer models of advanced nanopositioners that serve as guides in precision machining and his ideas about nanofabrication of materials may one day be used in hernia repairs or bladder replacement.
"I talked with a surgeon at Eastern Virginia Medical School, and he is very interested in what we are doing," Elmustafa said. "But, you know, he had never heard of ARC. We have to get the word out about our expertise."

The ODU faculty members on the ARC team are quick to mention the teaching duties that go hand-in-hand with their research.

They are working with colleagues at the Batten College to carry out a recent National Science Foundation grant titled "Virginia Partnership for Nanotechnology Education and Workforce Development." Linda Vahala, associate dean of the Batten College, is principal investigator for the ODU portion of the $600,000 grant, and Elsayed-Ali and Sacharia Albin, ODU professor of electrical and computer engineering, are co-principal investigators.

The grant is administered by George Mason University. The University of Virginia, William and Mary and Virginia Tech also are involved in the project.
"ODU will deliver synchronous and asynchronous courses for exchange between the participating universities, with the first course starting in spring 2007," explained Elsayed-Ali. The ARC-ODU team's responsibilities will include a course on plasma processing at the nanoscale.

ARC-ODU also recently received $400,000 under an ongoing Department of Energy grant for fundamental studies involving, among other things, nanocrystal and thin film growth. Elsayed-Ali is principal investigator of that grant as well as another for materials analysis from the National Institute of Aerospace for $144,000.

This article was posted on: March 27, 2006

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