UB Takes Lead in Consortium Awarded $5 Million to Develop New Materials in Molecular Electronics, Photonics

Researchers also involved at Berkeley, MIT, Yale and U of Washington

Release Date: May 23, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The U.S. Department of Defense has selected the Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics at the University at Buffalo to lead a world-class consortium in a five-year, $5 million effort to develop new materials in molecular electronics, photonics and opto-electronics to form the basis of a new generation of solar-powered information technology systems.

Such systems are expected to one day supplant electronics systems, which are fast approaching their physical limits in terms of data-storage capacity and transmission speeds.

The grant was the only award for developing molecular electronic and nanophotonic materials that the Department of Defense made in the current round of funding under the department's Defense University Research Initiative in Nanotechnology (DURINT) program.

It provides $2.2 million to UB's Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics to support a multi-institutional Center for Advanced Information Technology, directed by Paras Prasad, Ph.D., SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and executive director of the institute. Other UB co-investigators are Bruce McCombe, Ph.D., professor of physics and CAS senior associate dean; Hong Luo, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics; Alexander Cartwright, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical engineering and a deputy director of the institute, and Hiroaki Suga, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry.

The consortium features multidisciplinary teams of researchers who are pioneers in their fields at UB, the University of California at Berkeley, MIT, Yale and the University of Washington.

Responding to the grant announcement, UB President William R. Greiner said "this latest in a long line of substantial grants to the institute signals both its success as a true pioneer in the field of nanophotonics, and its compelling ability to attract brilliant researchers from across scientific disciplines.

"Our Institute for Lasers, Phontonics and Biophontics continues to command the attention of the international research and technology communities -- and that's great news for UB and for Western New York," Greiner added.

UB Provost Elizabeth D. Capaldi, Ph.D., praised Prasad and his co-investigators, noting that they "are at the cutting edge of research and their interdisciplinary approach has made them leaders in the country today. UB's strength is the ability to bring together researchers from many different areas, and the institute demonstrates the great benefits of this approach."

The ability to take such a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary approach has allowed UB researchers to assume a leading position in the fiercely competitive fields of nanophotonics and molecular electronics.

"The multidisciplinary environment that we have created at the institute has been a major driving force in obtaining this support," said Prasad. "Credit goes to the real, not virtual, interaction that occurs among all of us at UB and with our research partners at other institutions.

"In particular, by bringing engineers into our lab to work alongside physicists and chemists, we are going to be able to bring these emerging technologies to a new level, closer to the marketplace" said Prasad.

Cartwright added: "What this gives us is the ability to see these new technologies all the way through from basic materials to applications."

The researchers will focus on the full range of issues involved in developing new IT materials on the molecular and nanometer scale, including theoretical modeling and chemical synthesis, characterization, device fabrication, and testing and integration of components into larger-scale systems.

Characterized as not just the next generation of IT materials, but the one after that, the nanomaterials expected to result from this grant will be based on new solar-powered or photonic materials and structures that can dramatically increase the speed at which data are transmitted to thousands of times faster than current desktop systems.

The new materials are expected to facilitate far better methods of encryption, terabit data storage and high band-width processing necessitated by the huge increases being seen in traffic on the Internet.

Last year, in one of the first papers on the subject, Prasad and his colleagues authored an invited article for the Journal of Physical Chemistry that outlined UB's groundbreaking research on nanophotonics, the emerging field that deals with optical processes at the nanoscale.

Photonics is the information-processing counterpart of electronics, using photons instead of electrons to process information. In harnessing the power of light, scientists expect to be able eventually to transmit data up to thousands of times faster and store it up to thousands of times more efficiently than now is possible.

Currently, Prasad explained, solar cells can only harvest photons in the green region of the optical spectrum. He and his colleagues are working on developing nanomaterials that harvest photons over the full optical spectrum, enabling these materials to operate at maximum efficiencies.

"In the next generation of IT technologies, we will start to see materials that still are based on silicon, but which will measure in the nanoscale range," explained E. J. Bergey, Ph.D., UB research associate professor of chemistry and a deputy director of the Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics. "The generation after that, the one this grant has targeted, will include devices where organic-based materials are utilized in place of inorganic, such as the use of self-ordered assembly used in biological processes to produce nanometer-scale materials."

That means, for example, that some of the same materials that nature uses to make up the intricate machinery inside living systems may one day be sitting inside your hard drive, too.

Hiroaki Suga, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry and co-investigator, who, among other things, is investigating the origins of the genetic code, will for the purposes of this grant team up with colleagues to see how the efficient organization of chemical systems, such as DNA, might be utilized in information processing.

A prime focus is chemical self-assembly, nature's tendency to want to create regular patterns where it can. If that power can be harnessed for the generation of new nanomaterials to form photonic crystals, for example, the researchers believe it will provide an unprecedented cost savings.

In particular, Suga is looking at self-assembling DNA molecules to see how they might use DNA-templated assembly to organize photonic and electronic nanostructures. One goal is to use the DNA templates to produce nanowires and nanoarrays, which, attached to a substrate, would make up the integrated circuit component of a potential large-capacity (but small in size) data-storage device.

UB scientists, together with collaborators at MIT, also will be looking into the use of virus particles (biological viruses, not the computer variety) as a kind of flexible container for photonic materials that can perform various IT functions. One idea being explored at UB is to remove the genomic material inside a virus particle and replace it with photonic and electronic materials capable of storing and transmitting data.

The goal is to use these particles to develop building blocks for novel photonic materials that would be used as miniaturized sensors, which would function in the computer chips of the future.

Developing smaller, faster and more densely packed IT devices requires a host of different approaches, which is why UB's multidisciplinary team will, in turn, be collaborating with multidisciplinary teams at the other institutions. Areas of expertise at the other institutions range from development of molecular transistors to random-access memory devices and photon harvesting techniques.

"The bottom line is that we need to come up with electronic devices that run more efficiently, on a smaller scale and that waste less energy," said Luo.

The result will be the development of technologies that simply are not possible with conventional microelectronics, such as:

* Computer chips, portions of which assemble themselves, mimicking the self-assembly propensities of biological systems

* Tents, planes and other vehicles bearing photonic coatings that turn sunlight into current, providing power for electrical systems in them

* IT components that can operate at speeds up to terabits per second, about 10,000 times faster than most current desktop systems

* Low-cost disposable electronics and photonics for guidance systems

* Nanobatteries made up of nanomaterials capable of generating maximum amounts of current from an extremely tiny package

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