You’ve probably heard that Georgia Tech has a number of Interdisciplinary Research Institutes (IRIs) – but do you know much about them?
This article is one in a series of Q&As to introduce the Tech community to the nine IRIs and their leaders. In this installment, Acting Executive Director of the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN) Oliver Brand answers questions about IEN and also talks about its efforts to support Georgia Tech faculty and students.
Q: The areas of electronics and nanotechnology encompass a vast number of research topics. How does IEN assist these research endeavors and bring together faculty, staff, and students?
A: Indeed, electronics and nanotechnology are affecting many disciplines: from medicine and health care to sustainable energy production, from protecting the environment to protecting our country’s infrastructure, from consumer electronic devices to complex systems such as high-speed trains or airplanes, to name a few.
If we look at electronics and nanotechnology research today, we see that it requires a rather broad interdisciplinary approach, bringing together scientists and engineers from various disciplines across campus, as well as – depending on the application – medical personnel or researchers from public policy. We have recently assessed that approximately 25 percent of faculty members at Georgia Tech are involved in electronics and nanotechnology research in some manner.
IEN has several strategies to fuse such interdisciplinary research: First, IEN supports nine research centers and programs that bring together faculty and students in more focused research areas, such as microelectromechanical systems, optoelectronics and photonics, photovoltaics, next generation semiconductors, devices and systems, high-frequency, broadband, mixed-signal electronic devices, circuits and systems, and micro- and nanoelectronics packaging. Second, IEN maintains state-of-the-art research laboratories in the Marcus Nanotechnology Building and the Pettit Microelectronics Research Building that host research groups from across campus. And, last but not least, IEN-sponsored events, such as the Nano@Tech seminar series, the NanoFANS forum, and an annual user research symposium, facilitate dissemination of on-campus research and stimulate discussion and collaboration.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about IEN’s cleanroom facilities?
A: Core facilities providing the necessary high-tech infrastructure are essential to research in the area of electronics and nanotechnology.
Many of the structures and devices that researchers investigate have micrometer or even nanometer dimensions and are often fabricated using complex instrumentation housed in exceptionally clean environments. These cleanrooms require substantial investments in infrastructure, highly skilled maintenance and management personnel, and round-the-clock monitoring.
Georgia Tech has always been a front-runner in this area and opened its first shared-user cleanroom in the Pettit Microelectronics Building in 1988. In 2009, the Marcus Nanotechnology Building opened, featuring a unique combination of inorganic and organic cleanrooms to facilitate research at the intersection of nanotechnology, biosciences, bioengineering, and medicine.
Today, our shared-user cleanrooms and laboratories host more than 200 fabrication and characterization tools, the largest shared-user toolset at any U.S. university. These tools are accessible to Georgia Tech students, researchers, and faculty – as well as to external academic and industry researchers at relatively low costs.
Additionally, IEN is part of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), a program supported by the National Science Foundation. NNIN’s goal is to provide broad access to fabrication and characterization facilities to promote nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. Almost 800 researchers, 600 from this campus and 200 from off campus, have used the IEN cleanrooms and labs in the past 12 months. Skilled IEN staff train new users and assist with processing and characterization needs.
Q: How does IEN support education and outreach?
A: Most of the users of our cleanrooms are actually Georgia Tech graduate students who gain hands-on experience with techniques such as growing nanostructures in dedicated furnaces and imaging results using high-resolution electron microscopes.
IEN also supports several REU (research experience for undergraduates) programs during the summer that allow undergraduate students from across the U.S. to perform hands-on electronics and nanotechnology research. To support instructional activities, we maintain a special teaching cleanroom, which is used for micro/nanotechnology lab courses taught in three engineering schools: electrical and computer, mechanical, and chemical and biomolecular engineering.
Finally, IEN is the headquarters of the NNIN education and outreach office, which supports many programs targeting K-12 students, teachers, undergraduate and graduate students, and the general public.
Q: What is on the horizon for IEN?
A: The most imminent efforts are associated with the build-out of the Marcus Nanotechnology Building. Interdisciplinary research laboratories for biomedical devices, physical devices and systems, and nanomaterials, are either under construction or in the design phases. Additionally, construction is underway for a shared-user imaging and characterization suite in the basement of the Marcus Nanotechnology Building. Upon completion in 2014, this low vibration, low electromagnetic interference (EMI) facility will house a suite of high-resolution scanning and transmission electron microscopes, x-ray tomography systems, and surface characterization tools, as well as ion-beam-based nano-machining systems.
IEN has also initiated a research seed grant program for Georgia Tech faculty and students. The grantees are awarded blocks of access time to IEN cleanrooms to execute new ideas and generate initial results that may lead to funded proposal submissions. A semiannual submission, review, and award process is in place. The next round of grants will be offered in spring 2014.
Finally, IEN is participating in Tech’s efforts to develop an industry membership model, which will enable industry to more easily become familiar with Tech’s research activities in electronics and nanotechnology. The goals are to raise funds to seed new research ideas in a self-sustaining manner, and connect industry with students and faculty to jump-start funded research projects.
Q: How does IEN connect commercial and government entities to campus faculty and resources and help streamline the collaboration or contracting processes.
A: First, IEN staff serves on various campus councils where they work collaboratively with other Interdisciplinary Research Institutes and campus development staff. As a result, IEN has been able to develop a prioritized target list of companies needing assistance in the electronics and nanotechnology space. IEN staff then works to connect these companies with the faculty most aligned with their needs.
In addition, IEN works closely with Georgia Tech Research Corporation contracting officers and faculty, bridging the gap between academic and industry needs and accelerating the contracting process. IEN staff also assists faculty with the coordination and proposal writing process.