Big Electronic Innovation in a Small Package

 Chemistry, ECE, & MSE Pioneer Self-Assembled "Nanostructured Carbons"

May 10, 2004

There is still truth to the old adage that good things come in small packages, according to recent news around the world.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's article, "Technique Lets Nano Shapes Assemble Themselves," and Germany's Innovations-Report, "Carnegie Mellon Creates Novel Carbon Nanoparticles with Vast Potential" highlight the pioneering work building nanoscale electronics at Carnegie Mellon University and Washington University in St. Louis.

Funded for more than one million dollars through the National Science Foundation's Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Team (NSF-NIRT), the research is led by Assistant Chemistry Professor Tomasz Kowalewski. Co-principal investigators on the project are Professor of ECE and MSE David N. Lambeth, Associate Professor of MSE Lisa Porter, and Chemistry Professor Krzysztof Matyjaszewski.

Nanostructured Carbons & Their Applications

"Nanostructured carbons," measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter, could be used for a variety of applications. Atomic force microscopy (AFM) and spectroscopic studies show the Carnegie Mellon-manufactured copolymers produce well organized carbon nanostructures. Kowalewski explains that since the materials self-assemble, the process is relatively inexpensive and is scalable for commercial production. This seamless manufacturing process is important to generate integrated devices and is difficult to achieve through other ways of synthesizing nanostructured carbons.

"In collaboration with colleagues in the ECE Department, we are embarking on a project in which we will use these new materials to build chemically-sensitive field effect transistors, which will find applications as highly specific sensors," Kowalewski reports on his web site.

The new nanotechnology could power solar panels, sensors and actuators, and photovoltaic cells and supercapacitors for environmentally-friendly energy conversion and storage. Biotechnology and medical practitioners could also use the high-surface area electrodes produced in the process and television manufacturers might apply the technology to flat panel screen displays.

Education & Training

ECE graduate student Aaron Gilad (Gil) Kusne is preparing an apparatus that monitors the electronic field emission properties of the carbons for such electronic displays; the NSF-NIRT award includes training undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Kusne began studying under Lambeth last summer, as an ECE undergraduate.

"We're developing a system to quickly and accurately characterize the carbon films created by Professor Kowalewski's team," he says. "In the next phase we will create systems to characterize the material's photovoltaic and capacitive properties."

Chemistry graduate student Chuanbing Tang presented the group's findings using polyacrylonitrile (PAN) as a nanoparticle precursor in March at the American Chemical Society meeting in Anaheim, California; the results will be published in Angewandte Chemie, International Edition. Using this method, PAN copolymers serving as carbon precursors are deposited as thin films on surfaces (e.g. silicon wafers), where they are patterned and further processed via the techniques now employed to fabricate microelectronic devices. The team will create prototypes for the most promising applications.

Tech Transfer to Industry & K-12

To facilitate transferring the science behind the innovative polymer chemistry to industry, the researchers partnered with companies such as Bayer, BF Goodrich, and PPG through the Atom Transfer Radical Polymerization (ATRP) Consortium at Carnegie Mellon.

As part of the project, participants will design nanoscience and nanotechnology curriculum for Carnegie Mellon's Science Van K-12 outreach program, which has delivered science assemblies, hands-on classroom activities, and workshops to thousands of Pittsburgh students since its inception in 1998. Associate Chemistry Professor Garry F. P. Warnock directs the outreach; the other "Van Guys" are college professors and retired high school science teachers; graduate and undergraduate students and scientists from other schools and industries sometimes participate, too. During Saturday morning workshops, middle school science teachers are invited to learn how to conduct the experiments from the van program and exchange ideas with their colleagues.

Research collaborations, such as the NSF-NIRT's nanostructured carbon grant shared between chemistry and engineering, underscore Carnegie Mellon's commitment to an interdisciplinary approach to research and education. Faculty and students from across multiple disciplines work together seamlessly to solve today's multifaceted engineering problems, bring new technologies to the marketplace, and educate the community.

Compiled with permission from Carnegie Mellon Media Relations; Photos from Tomasz Kowalewski and Aaron Gilad Kusne

An atomic force microscopy (AFM) image of carbon nanoclusters obtained by pyrolysis from block copolymers containing PAN.